SC Senate to discuss school safety with law enforcement, education officials

jself@thestate.comJanuary 6, 2013 

  • Want to go? The Senate Education Committee will meet at 10 a.m. Thursday in Room 105 of the Gressette Building on the State House grounds to discuss the safety of S.C. schools.

The state Senate Education Committee will hear this week from state law enforcement and education officials on what South Carolina can do to ensure its classrooms are safe in the wake of last month’s massacre of children and educators in Newtown, Conn.

Meanwhile, educators across the state are taking steps to improve school safety and assessing whether additional changes may be necessary.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said the goal of Thursday’s meeting is to get “the facts” from state officials on “the level of safety in public schools” and institutions of higher education. Courson also said the Education Committee also would welcome suggestions for improvement.

State schools Superintendent Mick Zais, SLED Chief Mark Keel, Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith and Julie Carullo, acting executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, have been invited to appear before the committee.

“School safety is foremost in everyone’s minds right now,” Smith said, adding law enforcement agencies need to ensure that “proper training, plans and communication avenues are in place to ensure the safety of our state’s schools and children.”

The S.C. Department of Education gives assistance to school districts in preparing safety plans. It also provides training at the request of districts, and Zais will provide the Senate committee with details on an upcoming training day, said Jay Ragley, Education Department spokesperson.

Courson said his committee will invite educators to give their ideas if his committee receives any legislation concerning school safety.

Educators already are expressing concern over a bill pre-filed in the S.C. House that would allow public-school employees to carry concealed weapons on school grounds, said Jackie Hicks, executive director for the S.C. Education Association.

“Accidents happen,” Hicks said. “The idea that something could happen and that they (educators) would be responsible. ... You’re talking life-and-death situations here.”

Looking for no-cost precautions

Last week, the S.C. Association of School Administrators sent out a survey to more than 1,000 S.C. principals and superintendents to find out what security measures they are taking and what concerns they have. By the end of Friday, about 220 had responded.

Some schools said they are taking measures that don’t cost money, including revisiting safety plans and ensuring they are being followed, said Molly Spearman, the organization’s executive director.

The most common measures reported by principals include walking school hallways more often to look for security concerns, ensuring all interior and exterior doors are locked, installing new locking systems and limiting access to school entrances and exits. Other principals are requesting key-pad access systems and more security cameras for their schools.

Those responding to the survey, as of Friday, said having more school resource officers — police officers authorized to carry weapons on school grounds — would be the most effective way to improve safety. Those responding ranked having more school resource officers as more important than having more health counselors, guidance counselors or armed security officers.

Deciding where school resource officers are stationed is a local matter, worked out between school districts and the law enforcement agencies that the officers work for, said Education Department spokesman Ragley.

The officers most commonly are found in high schools and middle schools. School districts in Lexington and Richland counties do not have full-time officers in elementary schools, citing the expense.

In Richland County, elementary schools share resource officers who “bounce” among schools and could show up at any school at any time, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.

District adds off-duty officers

That also was the case in Spartanburg School District 6, until the day a gunman entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults.

That afternoon, Spartanburg 6 Superintendent Darryl Owings called the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office and asked that off-duty officers be placed at the district’s 10 elementary schools.

Owings said that, after what happened in Newtown, “You have to look at: ‘Is there anything you could place on that campus that could help deter or address an issue?’ ”

Having “a police car in front of a school with an armed officer is something we needed to look at as quickly as possible,” Owings said.

When Spartanburg 6 elementary students return to class this week, off-duty officers will staff their schools.

The additional officers will add about $216,000 to the district’s $70 million-a-year budget, Owings said. This year, that money will come from savings meant for emergencies. In the future, the cost likely will become a budgeted expense.

However, Owings expects a state-level discussion about helping to pay for school districts’ added security efforts.

“Everybody is looking at every dollar they spend now, but again, when ... you look at dollars spent on safety, I think that’s well justified.”

John Monk and Tim Flach contributed to this report. Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.

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