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WCSO to conduct school safety assessment instead of independent firm

If there is a better answer to student safety than School Resource Officers, Washington County may never know.
During the last five months, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, school board members, county commissioners and the leaders at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office have debated the best options for increasing safety within each of the county’s schools.
Some commissioners were quick to jump behind the proposal from the Board of Education and the WCSO to add 10 new SROs at a cost of $2 million the first year and $1.4 million every year after, all in new money.
Many of the same commissioners balked at spending $84,000, reallocated from money already in the county’s current budget, to hire an outside firm to identify threats and vulnerabilities of each county school and the best means to protect students.
From day one, the recommendation of an assessment has been viewed by many as an anti-SRO effort rather than a sincere search for the best answer.
Other commissioners have questioned how SROs can be the first line of defense if they’re in the classroom delivering an anti-drug message or off-site on a home visit instead of at the entrance of a school.
The assessment expense was addressed during the April commission meeting when Sheriff Ed Graybeal offered for his department to do it for free.
“I have no doubt that we could put together a task force that’s better than anything you could get, and we wouldn’t charge,” Graybeal said. “As a county office, you’re already paying us.”
Whether expertise in law enforcement is comparable to expertise in security assessments was questioned in regard to the WCSO’s qualifications. Another question came up relating to the objectivity of an assessment done by the WCSO, which would garner 10 new employees if such an assessment deems SROs are the answer.
In the end, commissioners approved the funds for the assessment, giving the BOE full authority for the decision on which company would do the assessment.
The BOE Safety Committee met May 1 to review proposals submitted by the WCSO, Harrell Strategic Group, Building Security Specialists and Safariland Group.
During that meeting, Capt. Bryan Horton told members the WCSO has never done a school security assessment. Horton said representatives from the FBI and the Federal Marshal’s Service have agreed to serve on a task force and help them.
A second option, according to Horton, is to pay Safariland Group to assess two schools while WCSO officers observe, increasing that free offer to a $12,000 cost.
Safariland recently provided training on armed intruder suppression to WCSO and school system staff.
WCSO officers would conduct the remaining 12 assessments by themselves at no charge, though Horton could not commit to finishing by the end of the school year.
Board member Chad Williams questioned that plan.
“No two schools are the same,” he said. “Obviously, you could get some ideas if (Safariland) helped you with one, but I’m not sure that would work for all schools.”
Harrell Strategic Group was the only other company with representatives at the meeting to answer questions.
Gary Harrell gave a short description of his experience in the security field, which includes being a retired two star general who served in the U.S. Army’s Delta Force for 15 years. Harrell worked under retired Gen. Tommy Franks and was in charge of security for all embassies, bases and ships in a 25-country region, including the American school in Kuwait.
“My team is already assembled and we will be able to look at all of the schools (by the end of the school year). We just may not have the write-up finished (by then),” he said.
Wiliams made a motion to recommend to the full board Harrell Strategic conduct the assessment in conjunction with the WCSO at the stated price of $84,000 for all 14 schools. The motion was seconded by Todd Ganger and passed with unanimous approval.
During the school board meeting the next night, Williams said he would like to explain his motion for recommending Harrell Strategic during the Safety Committee meeting. “We’re in a real world situation today, and Harrell brings an outside look,” he said.
In hiring Harrell and having the WCSO work alongside the company, Williams said “you can have the very best of both worlds.”
Safety Committee Chair Bill Brinkley moved to approve the recommendation, which was seconded by Ganger. But the motion failed with Brinkley, Mary Lo Silvers, Clarence Mabe, Jack Leonard, David Hammond, Phillip McLain and Keith Ervin opposed.
McLain said he wanted to hear comments from WCSO Maj. Gary Bradley.
“After hearing the recommendations and motions made during the Safety Committee meeting, we have concluded our preference be given to Safariland Training Group,” Bradley read from a prepared statement.
Silvers made a motion, seconded by McLain, to honor the WCSO request and pay Safariland $12,000 to assess two schools.
Hammond said schools also are dealing with issues such as vandalism, angry parents, and custody and child abuse cases.
“Study or no study, SROs are needed and parents agree,” he said. “I’m not against a security study, but if there is a perception out there that we don’t need SROs, we’re off the mark.”
McLain agreed. “SROs know our schools, our children and are from our community,” he said.
Ganger considered the issue from another angle.
“My huge concern is you’ve never assessed a school before,” he said to Bradley.
Bradley argued they have six officers who have gone through SRO training and the schools are being assessed on a daily basis.
“Then I don’t think we need to pay Safariland,” Ganger said. Bradley said Safariland is a partner that is already on board.
The vote to pay $12,000 for Safariland to assess two schools while shadowed by the WCSO, who will then complete the rest at no charge without Safariland, passed. Ganger was the only member to vote against it.