NEW FOR THURSDAY: Commissioners Hear Proposal On School Resource Officers

SNOW HILL — Having law enforcement officers in every school will have the “greatest impact on school safety,” according to the Worcester County Board of Education, and officials asked the County Commission this week to consider funding them and several capital improvement projects aimed at evolving school security.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">

While continuing improvements may be suggested in the future, metal detectors are not currently a priority and arming teachers is not “a solution,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson.

Ever since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, school systems across the country, including Worcester and other regional systems, have been racing to adapt to a new environment.

“The biggest change is a need for a security presence in schools,” Wilson told the commission. “People do not feel as safe as they used to. The school staff and parent community expects law enforcement to play a larger role.”

That security presence, often referred to as School Resource Officers (SRO), would total 13 agents in all and be placed at every public school facility in Worcester. They would be armed and receive law enforcement training and the school system suggested that they serve directly under the Worcester County Sheriff.

“We would like these to be employees of the sheriff,” he said. “This is important since in the event of a crisis communication with county-wide law enforcement is essential for the safety of the school.”

This would place the SROs on the Sheriff’s Department’s budget and the cost, while not yet calculated, is expected to be significant. However, Wilson reiterated the feeling of the school board’s Security Committee that an armed security presence in schools is important and was critical of less expensive alternatives like having armed educators on campuses.

“We do not see arming teachers as a solution. In fact, I am concerned that we may be in a less safe environment with multiple weapons in a school,” said Wilson. “Additionally, our school personnel have full-time responsibilities and are not trained, nor should they be in our area, to be expected to provide safety by using a weapon.”

Beyond SROs, Wilson briefed the commission on six other “capital improvements” for safety totaling about $220,000 that the school board would like to make in schools next year. These include the installation of electronic entry systems, card swiping systems, additional security cameras, front entrance vehicle barriers, visitor identification systems and window blinds and tinting.

Specifically, Wilson requested the commissioners approve $128,000 for the first two capital improvements: 14 electronic entry systems with cameras and two-way speakers and nine card swiping systems for doors leading to portable classroom areas.

“We will screen all visitors and know who exactly is in our schools at all times,” he said.

While the $128,000 would not cover vehicle barriers or visitor identification systems, Wilson explained that the school board expects to take advantage of grants offered through the state that should provide additional resources for upgrading school safety. However, it’s not yet clear what kinds of monies Worcester might be eligible for.

“If it were on a square footage basis, our estimate would be around $200,000 … We can’t yet anticipate fully what the state will fund us with,” said Wilson, who added that the often maligned wealth-based formula might also be factored in.

Between state and county funding the school board hopes to have SROs and the capital improvements in place by the next school year. Commissioner Virgil Shockley wondered why other improvements, especially basic metal detectors, haven’t been considered.

“Was that any part of the discussion of the [Safety] Committee, of metal detectors at all?” he asked.

That wasn’t a suggestion that the committee had returned to the Board of Education, admitted Wilson.

“Presently, in most school systems that you would see, only in urban centers would you see metal detectors, is my general impression,” said Wilson.

Board of Education Director of Transportation Steve Price, who also helms school security, told the commissioners all safety recommendations were made with input from local law enforcement and that while metal detectors had been brought up, officers felt that resources would be better served by alternate measures.

“During our discussions, that topic came up very briefly but it was not a priority for the local law enforcement agency at this time,” said Price.

The commissioners made no approvals this week, though Commission President Bud Church told the school board that all requests will be carefully weighed.

“We’ve got a couple more pieces to put in here. And we understand the urgency … we’ll get back to you as quick as we can. We have to fill in the pieces as to where we are,” he said.