Beaufort Co. plans to hire armed private security guards for elementary schools

For the first time ever, all of Beaufort County School District’s elementary campuses are slated to get their own security guards, following a unanimous vote at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

The district will start the process of hiring private security for the district’s elementary schools and early childhood centers, a move that will bring 17 armed security guards to the district for an estimated $734,000.

Bluffton representative Rachel Wisnefski, who said last week that she would seek permission to bring her own gun to meetings if the district eliminated its contract with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office to have a deputy at board meetings, introduced the motion.

In it, she asks the district to hire private security guards that will be gradually replaced with school resource officers from the county’s law enforcement agencies. The SROs will be more expensive and would likely take longer to train and outfit for school assignments.

“We’re going to move ahead as quickly as possible,” district spokesman Jim Foster said.

He noted that the district still required guidance from the board on how to word their request for proposals from security companies, and how they would fund the security, which was not included in the $254 million budget approved by the board and County Council in June.

There is not a “precise timetable” on when schools can expect security, Foster said.

“From our discussion tonight, it sounds like this would just be for (the district) to start investigating and getting a handle on how expensive the services provided are,” board chairwoman Christina Gwozdz said Tuesday.

At the latest, security costs would be factored into the board’s development of a budget for 2020-21, which is slated to begin with a budget workshop on Oct. 25 and 26.

Foster said the cost estimate for private security was developed from conversations with a single security company, and would get “much more precise” once the district began to receive proposals.

What schools have now

Currently, each of the district’s middle and high schools are patrolled by a school resource officer from the Bluffton and Beaufort police departments, as well as the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.

According to district security chief David Grissom, the district pays about $900,000 each school year for its 14 current SROs. The district pays 75 percent of the cost for each officer, while the law enforcement agencies provide the remaining 25 percent.

Grissom told the board Tuesday that bringing 17 SROs into the elementary schools would cost about $1.9 million the first year, when the officers would require training, uniforms and patrol cars. In the second year, it would cost around $1.1 million, still a $400,000 increase from the estimated cost of private security.

As it stands, elementary schools share five community resource officers from the sheriff’s office with other private schools in the county. In total, the five officers patrol more than 30 schools. The program is free for the district.

Two weeks ago, Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts administrators found two kitchen knives in a female student’s backpack. According to a sheriff’s office report, she allegedly told another student she was going to kill a boy for liking another girl.

However, the district has discussed elementary school security for several years.

In 2018, the board received a report on each time CROs swiped into schools in 2017-18. According to the report, 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.

While district spokesman Jim Foster said the CRO presence was likely underreported at the time, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the program was “not where it should be” and advocated for the board to consider augmenting the SRO program with private security guards in the elementary schools.

The board’s vote to bolster security could be further boosted by the results of the district’s Nov. 5 school bond referendum. Of the referendum’s $345 million price tag, $25.7 million is set aside for safety and security improvements at every school in the district.

Members of the community project review committee that advised interim superintendent Herb Berg on referendum priorities listed security as their number-one concern, something that board member John Dowling brought up during Tuesday’s discussion of the timeline to hire security.

“We have a budget of a quarter of a billion dollars,” he said. “Safety is our number-one priority, so I’m sure you can find items that have less of a priority in order to fund our number-one priority.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.