Are Beaufort County schools safe? Here’s what security measures they have in place
As concerns continue to mount over school shooting threats, teachers, school board members and even the Beaufort County sheriff are questioning the lack of a regular security presence at every school in the Beaufort County School District.
While each of the districts’ middle and high schools are equipped with a school resource officer from one of the county’s law enforcement agencies, only five community resource officers are tasked with visiting all of the public and private elementary schools in the county, totaling more than 30.
Beaufort County Board of Education member David Striebinger said he was first informed about possible issues with the CRO program at the elementary schools a few months ago when he heard that some teachers had not seen a CRO in their school for months at a time.
Then last week, the board received a database that detailed each time a community resource officer swiped their badge to enter a school during the 2017-18 school year.
“Sure enough the teachers were right,” Striebinger said Friday. “There were tremendous gaps when CROs didn’t visit an elementary school for months, and that needs to be fixed.”
For example, CROs only swiped their badges at the Bluffton Early Childhood Center twice the entire 2017-18 school year. And from November 2017 to March 2018, Okatie Elementary didn’t have a single badge swiped by a CRO, according to the data.
District spokesperson Jim Foster cautioned that the data did not give an accurate picture.
If a CRO entered a school with another person or during morning arrival when students were entering the school, the officers might not have swiped their badge at the doors, Foster said.
Still, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner told the school board Tuesday that the CRO program was “not where it should be.”
In addition to visiting elementary schools, the CROs are also responsible for assisting with lockdown drills and school searches and filling in for school resource officers when needed.
The program is supposed to provide five CROs to the elementary schools. But due to officers leaving agencies and the need for CROs to fill in for vacant SRO positions, two CROs were responsible for visiting all the public and private elementary schools in the county, as well as the local Boys and Girls Clubs, according to a memo from David Grissom, the district’s protective services coordinator.
The CRO program, which is fully funded by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, originally began as a way to introduce younger children to uniformed law enforcement officers — not for security purposes, according to Tanner.
“When we started (the CRO program) five years ago, we didn’t have the same concerns at our elementary schools about safety, because it was a lighter threat level than (at) our middle schools and our middle schools and high schools,” Tanner said at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Although Tanner told the board that the role of the CROs was more focused on “public relations” between the children and officers, Striebinger said teachers and parents see the CROs as an important safety and security measure and the program should be considered through that lens.
“I understand that the SROs are not there just for safety, they’re there for disciplinary issues in the schools too and those are rare in the elementary schools, but I’m focused on their other role — providing some level of safety for students, staff and teachers,” Striebinger said.
Tanner agreed that the presence of a school resource officer at the elementary schools could serve as a major deterrent to individuals outside a school who may consider a threat like a shooting.
Due to the high costs associated with hiring, training and equipping an SRO and a lack of SRO availability, Tanner suggested that the board consider augmenting the SRO program with private security guards in the elementary schools.
Unlike the CRO program, which is free for the district, the 14 SROs cost the district about $890,000 each school year, according to its contracts with Bluffton and Beaufort police departments and the sheriff’s office. The district pays 75 percent of the cost for each school resource officer, while the law enforcement agencies provide the remaining 25 percent.
Since one CRO began this school year filling in for an SRO who resigned, four CROs are currently rotating to the elementary schools.
Striebinger said that adding private security guards was one possible avenue the school board may consider but that first he would like to see all five CRO slots filled.
“We’ve got the data in front of us that shows we have a problem that we need to fix. We’re not speculating, so we’ve got to do something,” Striebinger said.
So far during the 2018-19 school year, two threats have been made to Beaufort County schools.
On Aug. 23, a 17-year-old Michigan boy with a history of soliciting and posting naked photos and videos of Beaufort County teens online posted on the social media app Snapchat that he was going to “shoot up” Bluffton and May River high schools.
The two high schools, along with Bluffton Elementary School and H.E. McCracken Middle School, were placed on a modified lockdown for about two and a half hours before the threat was deemed “non-credible.”
Two weeks later, on Sept. 6, another possible threat was discovered written on a bathroom wall at the district’s alternative school, Islands Academy in Beaufort. The writing on the wall read “we should shoot dis school up,” according to a sheriff’s office report.
The school was not placed on lockdown and as of Friday, the threat was still under investigation by the sheriff’s office, Foster said.
How other school districts are using officers
At Lexington County School District One, all middle and high schools have at least one school resource officer. The district’s two biggest high schools have two officers, according to the district’s spokesperson Mary Beth Hill.
At the Lexington district’s elementary schools, one officer is assigned to two schools that are geographically close to one another. According to Hill, the officers spend about four hours at each school every day of the week.
Hill said the Lexington district is interested in adding more school resource officers, but funding and the availability of qualified officers are a hindrance.
“Our district is covered by three jurisdictions of law enforcement and it’s hard for any of them to have that many officers,” Hill said.
The Horry County School District, by comparison, uses a combination of school resource officers and private security guards.
In Horry County, middle and high schools within a municipal jurisdiction are assigned one school resource officer, which are half funded by the district and half by the municipal law enforcement agency, according to David Beaty, Horry County School District’s coordinator of school safety and security.
The Horry County district’s elementary schools and middle and high schools within unincorporated areas of the county are each assigned one private security guard.
The Horry County School District fully funds the salaries for the private security guards, which costs about $30,000 a year for each officer, according to Beaty.
It began phasing in the private security guards during the 2017-18 school year and this school year will mark the first time an SRO or security guard is present in each of the district’s schools.
Asked why the Horry County School District began considering adding security guards in elementary schools, Beaty said parents began questioning why officers were provided to secondary schools and not at the elementary level.
“And that’s a fair question to evaluate especially when you consider that the (U.S.) has had incidents in and around elementary schools,” he said.
Although the private security guards and the school resource officers are tasked with protecting staff and students, Beaty said the security guard “supplement but do not replace” law enforcement.
According to the district’s contract with US Security Associates, the guards are responsible for addressing and stabilizing threats until public safety or first responders can respond and assist public safety as needed.