While acknowledging some gaps in school security, superintendent Jeff Moss, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and others made suggestions for improvements — some with a high price tag and others with little to no cost that could be implemented immediately — at a forum Wednesday evening.
The roundtable discussion came three weeks to the day a 19-year-old shot and killed 14 students and three educators at a Parkland, Fla. high school, an event that drove school safety issues back into the national spotlight.
At least eight threats have been reported at district schools in the days since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, none of which were substantiated. Similar reports have emerged at schools across the country, prompting reviews of security policies already in place.
“Unfortunately, what happens after tragic events is we glean a little bit more,” Moss said Wednesday night.
He addressed some shortcomings in the district’s safety procedures, including “blind spots” in a handful of security cameras and “dead spots” where radios don’t transmit or receive. A review of security equipment is ongoing and could be soon upgraded through savings elsewhere in the district’s budget, he said.
School visitors are required to provide their name and purpose of their visit before school staff buzz them into the building. This happens on most occasions, Moss said, but will now be more strictly enforced.
“We have the security measures in place,” he said. “We just have to do a better job of following them.”
Some school doors have occasionally been propped open by students or staff. To discourage this, Moss said he is looking into alarming exterior doors, a suggestion that came after a meeting with Bluffton High School students earlier in the day.
The students requested the meeting with Moss to offer their own ideas, which ranged from bulletproof windows to self-defense training for staff to perimeter fencing around schools.
Since 1995, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Bluffton and Beaufort police departments, have stationed full-time police officers, called SROs, in each of the county’s public middle and high schools. Community resource officers, known as CROs, split their time visiting the county’s public elementary schools.
Among the other student suggestions was one known as “equal armament.” It would allow SROs to carry assault rifles instead of handguns to “level the playing field,” with the weapons typically wielded by assailants, Moss said. He added that he is not in favor of arming teachers, a proposal S.C. Governor Henry McMaster says he supports.
Moss briefly touched on more expensive measures available, such as a collapsible, bulletproof vault in which kids could shelter inside the classroom but safe from an active shooter. The district estimates the cost of installing one per classroom to top $80 million.
Metal detectors cost about $4,000 each on top of the personnel costs of additional staff to man the stations. Moss the using detectors would cause a disruption in students’ daily routine.
He cited May River High School as an example. Assuming two detectors at the school and one student walking through every 15 seconds, it would take the school’s 1,200 students two and a half hours to enter the building.
“Security is not convenient,” Tanner said.
River Ridge Academy parent Liz Maffei raised the issue of safety in mobile classrooms, temporary trailers set up next to schools that allow students to remain at the school to which they’re assigned. Because of overcrowding, River Ridge, a K-8 school in Bluffton, will have eight mobiles next school year. Pritchardville Elementary will have six.
The Beaufort County School District already uses a total of 27 mobiles at Coosa Elementary, Beaufort High, Bluffton Elementary, Bluffton High, Hilton Head Island Middle and H.E. McCracken Middle. Not all of the mobiles are being used as classrooms, district spokesman Jim Foster said last fall.
Tanner pointed out that mobile classrooms are actually easier for law enforcement to control than large buildings because there are fewer entry points. He conceded, however, that the brick-and-mortar material of a school building is more protective than that of a trailer.
Moss emphasized Wednesday’s discussion was part of an ongoing one with principals, parents, teachers and law enforcement.
“We have 22,000 kids and 2,800 employees,” he said. “We know on any given day, we’re outnumbered.”