Local News

Story published: 01-29-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Leaders want officer in all county schools

By Karen Sells
Assistant Editor

It did not take a school shooting for Washington County to consider the safety of its students.

“We have been very proactive regarding safety for many years, and we continue to be,” Director of Schools Ron Dykes said during a called meeting of the Public Safety Committee on Jan. 22.

Locking the schools once students are inside for the day and keeping classrooms locked during instructional time are only a couple of the policies in place. “We’re also very careful who we let in the buildings, and many of the areas are gated,” he said.

Video surveillance is another major addition, according to Dykes, and a growing number of exterior and interior cameras are installed in the buildings each year.

A collaborative effort with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office enables officers to monitor the cameras from their squad cars.

Dykes said it also is not unusual for patrolmen to stop in the buildings, and a WCSO car parked outside of the schools is a good deterrent to crime.

Six school resource officers are currently employed by the WCSO. The original intent was to add two annually until all the schools were covered. Ten additional SROs would allow the WCSO to assign an officer to all school campuses.

Dykes said the SROs are at the schools to interact with the students. “Not to be their pal, but also not to be seen as an opponent,” he said. “They develop a camaraderie as bonds are formed.”

Sheriff Ed Graybeal said SROs offer the fastest response time because they know the teachers and the layout of the buildings, and would not lose precious time asking for directions.

In addition, SROs are required to complete more hours of specialized training.

“SROs aren’t security,” Graybeal said. “They’re law enforcement equipped to handle anything that could come through the school, including an irate parent.”

Commission Chair Greg Matherly asked if the SROs are involved in compliance with the Department of Children’s Services, and Dykes said it is common for SROs to accompany counselors on home visits.

Dykes said there is a big difference in the crisis response from civilians, even if trained, and he does not support weapons being carried in the schools by anyone other than law enforcement personnel.

Graybeal agreed. “If you’re in a uniform, I know who you are,” he said, pointing to the potential confusion and unintentional harm that could result from armed individuals coming out of classrooms or around corners while the WCSO is trying to contain a dangerous situation.

Dykes said an all-day training session on the immediate response to an armed intruder is being considered for school staff. “We would train a large segment who will, in turn, train others,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security would provide training for 60 staff members at a cost of $8,000. Dykes said the WCSO provided information on the training, which is planned for May.

Commissioner Pete Speropulos made a motion to recommend the commission pay the school system’s portion of $3,000 for the training, which was seconded by Commissioner Sam Phillips and passed unanimously.

The remaining $5,000 will be covered by a grant from Homeland Security.

During Monday’s meeting, the commission approved the $3,000 be taken from the remainder left in the Employee Dependent Insurance budget line. Mayor Dan Eldridge suggested this line, saying those funds will not be used this fiscal year.

The expense for each additional SRO, however, will come with a much bigger price tag. Among the costs listed by Graybeal are one-time expenses of $44,000 for an equipped car, $3,000 for weapons and $2,500 for training at a state academy.

A recurring salary expense of $41,000 brings the annual first-year cost of a new SRO to approximately $95,000.

Dykes said the schools budget currently provides $80,000 to the WCSO annually for SRO support.

Commissioner Sam Humphreys suggested deputizing gate guards, constables or even the athletic directors as SROs. “I’m trying to save taxpayers money,” he said.

Graybeal said the individuals Humphreys suggested would not be his employees, and it is not a good idea to step outside of full-time law enforcement professionals.

Board of Education Finance Committee Chair David Hammond said he believes the taxpayers would be in favor of funding additional SROs, and he has received calls saying so.

District Attorney General Tony Clark said his office does not have a lot to offer as far as training, but pledged to do anything he could to prevent another school tragedy.

“These people aren’t thinking right anyway; if they’re going to do something, they will,” Clark said.

A constant reminder for vigilance is still one of the best security measures, according to Dykes. “Our administrators and teachers are trained to spot intruders, and our children are trained to not open the doors,” he said.

Chair Roger Nave asked Graybeal to attend the Feb. 12 meeting of the Public Safety Committee with a breakdown of one-time expenses and recurring costs for 10 new SROs, which could be taken to the Budget Committee for consideration. “I’m ready to go,” Nave said.