Trained officers in schools best security strategy

It's comforting and at the same time disconcerting to read a description of security measures in place at Beaufort County's public schools.

They are thorough, and unfortunately necessary, if for no other reason than to give parents and guardians some measure of assurance that their children are safe while away from their care.

The academic world has changed a great deal since many of us were in a classroom, especially after the Columbine school shootings in 1999. The Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators, brought into sharp focus again why we have taken these precautions.

And it also raised new doubts about whether we are doing enough to protect our children.

But we must not overreact. A bill has been introduced in the state Senate that would allow people who have permits to carry concealed weapons to bring their weapons into schools.

Under current law, weapons are not allowed in schools and must be locked away out of sight when in a vehicle on school grounds.

A House bill would allow a school employee with a concealed weapons permit to bring a gun into a school if authorized by the local district.

State superintendent Mick Zais testified at a Senate committee hearing that he would support a local district's decision to allow a few highly trained and screened employees to carry guns in schools.

All are bad ideas. Mark Keel, head of the State Law Enforcement Division, emphatically rejected civilians carrying guns in schools, and he should be heeded.

"God forbid, if we have a shooting incident where school employees are armed and law enforcement is responding, (and) they don't know who's who," Keel said at the same committee meeting. "When they're confronted by armed individuals in civilian clothes, they don't know who the bad guys are."

Teachers have enough to do without worrying about significant gun training and re-training, he said. In shootings, even law enforcement officers fail to the hit their target half of the time.

Better, Keel said, to have trained law enforcement officers in our schools.

That makes much more sense than risking a student getting a gun left unattended or a teacher or other employee accidentally shooting a child or a co-worker.

Beaufort County's middle and high schools have armed school resource officers on duty. No school resource officers are regularly assigned to elementary schools. In a new program, 16 Beaufort County sheriff's deputies have started visiting elementary schools during routine patrols. It's a good start.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner also wants to reassign six deputies who work at the Beaufort County Animal Shelter & Control to elementary schools.

A bill introduced Wednesday in the Senate calls for a trained a police officer in each of the state's public schools, with the state footing the bill. The plan could cost between $30 million and $40 million a year, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler said. Some lawmakers say the state might provide supplemental support rather than paying the full cost. Federal help also might be available.

Financial help will be key to putting an officer in every school. Spokesman Jim Foster said that this school year, the Beaufort County school district is paying $687,152 for school resource officers in its middle and high schools. That's with the district contributing 75 percent of the cost, and the law enforcement agencies supplying the officers contributing 25 percent.

Still, officers on site, in addition to helping in an emergency, could also be a critical deterrent.

Trained police officers in our schools is a safer and saner approach to protecting our children. We should listen to law enforcement professionals.