SNOW HILL — A trained, active School Resource Officer (SRO) is a necessity in every Worcester County Public School facility, said Worcester County Sheriff Reggie Mason this week, but it will come with a steep cost ranging from $600,000 to $1.6 million depending on the county’s preferred course of action.
“No child should feel in danger when attending our schools,” Mason told the Worcester County Commissioners Tuesday. “Our children need to be learning, not sitting there thinking about if some crazy nut might enter the school to harm them. Our job is to reassure them we will not let this happen.”
After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Board of Education formed a security council that produced several recommendations for school safety improvements, chief of which is adding 13 trained and armed SRO’s to all public school facilities. There are 14 public schools in the county, with two sharing a building.
Putting full-time officers with uniforms and vehicles in schools would cost a little over $1.6 million the first year, according to Mason, and about $1 million the second year with costs likely to dip slightly after that. While both the Sheriff’s Office and the school board have requested the commission approve SROs, Mason said Tuesday that he understands how expensive the program would be to implement.
“I have no idea where you can find the money,” he said.
However, he remained adamant that the officers are critical should an emergency occur, especially something like an armed intruder. Waiting for a SWAT Team to arrive burns too much valuable time when a hostile intruder could increase casualties, Mason continued.
Having an officer, especially one trained to immediately rush toward gunfire and insert a presence, would drastically improve school safety.
“I feel a trained, active shooter is needed for each school,” he said.
With the county facing a $7.3 million shortfall heading into their next budget this spring, though, several commissioners underlined that as much as they desire complete school safety there are realistic limits when building a budget.
“We hear it from both ends,” said Commission President Bud Church, referring to pressure from parents asking for more security measures and other residents demanding budget austerity.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley advised looking into part-time only SROs, usually retired law enforcement officers who would go through the security program. Like their full-time counterparts, part-time SROs would be armed and trained but they would not have county vehicles and would only work during the school year.
Such a scenario could work, according to Mason. As part-time employees without vehicles, the first-year cost would “be no more than $600,000,” the sheriff estimated. Having vehicles in front of schools would be preferable, Mason added, but with budgets strapped the cheaper alternative option would still ease the fears he said he experiences every day. Police are still visiting schools during opening and closing and performing regular spot checks throughout the day, but full-time supervision is needed and should be put in place as soon as possible, Mason concluded.
The training period for SROs can be between three and four months all told, explained Sheriff’s Office Lt. Andy McGee, so the ball needs to get rolling this summer if the county wants officers in schools by the end of August. With either SRO option, Church asked if there might be some outside funding available such as state or federal grants.
“We are anticipating the federal government will offer some funding to offset the costs,” answered McGee.
McGee added that how much money, if any, that could be is a complete unknown at this point and impossible to plan around.
Mason will be returning next Tuesday during a commission budget work session to further present figures on SRO options like the part-time option Shockley detailed. It was welcome news for some parents in the audience that the commissioners are continuing to consider armed safety officers in schools. But there are still concerns about what can be done for the remainder of this school year.
“Our kids are unprotected,” asserted parent Jackie Cutlip, who has regularly attended and spoken at County Commission and Board of Education meetings since the Sandy Hook shootings this December.
Cutlip, who was joined by several other parents with children in Showell Elementary School (SES), thanked the commissioners and the sheriff for recognizing the benefit of SROs for next year. She asked though, as she has at previous meetings, why more security measures such as locked doors, card swipe systems or stricter surveillance is not in effect today.
The Board of Education has asked for funding for school safety improvements such as new entry systems for next year and has expressed unease with locking down school facilities without some of these support measures in place, as it would greatly limit access to parents or other authorized visitors.
Still, Cutlip remains unsatisfied with the current level of security and asked the commission to work with the school system to implement something for the remainder of the current school year. Several on the commission admitted that they would like to see immediate improvements prior to the budget being finalized.
“Why can’t we implement some little things right now?” asked Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw.
Commissioners Judy Boggs and Jim Bunting agreed.
“We don’t have to wait until we have deputies in every school to lock the doors,” said Bunting.
County Attorney Sonny Bloxom reminded the commission that all of those decisions are the purview of the Board of Education and while the commissioners and public are free to share their concerns with the board, they make the ultimate call on locking schools. It’s fair to state that the commission could approve less expensive safety improvements like keycard entry systems or additional security cameras ahead of the budget. Church told Board of Education members earlier this month that the commission “understands the urgency” and would like to see safety improved as soon as is realistic.