By Stan Welch
Approximately forty people, including educators, law enforcement officials, and parents jammed into the offices of the Anderson legislative delegation Monday for a meeting on school safety, hosted by District 8 Rep. Don Bowen.
The meeting was a response to efforts by parents with children in the county’s elementary schools, which are currently unprotected by trained security or law enforcement personnel.
The county’s middle schools and high schools are staffed by school resource officers, but that program was not originally intended to provide security.
It was intended to have a resource officer on hand to address issues that arose from within the schools, not threats from without. For that reason, elementary schools in the county have not had such an arrangement. The elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT in December has exposed that shortcoming.
Holly Carithers and Jennifer Opper, who also addressed the county council earlier this year, were on hand to assist Bowen, who asked the audience for any and all suggestions. Those suggestions centered around both the issue of trained and professional personnel to provide security, as well as focusing on the issue of mental health and the care given, or denied, to those in need of it.
Sheriff John Skipper agreed with the various speakers who raised the mental health issue. “Budget cuts at the state level for mental health issues have had a significant impact on my office, and the other sheriffs around the state.”
He spoke of one case where a patient taken into custody spent more than six weeks in a local hospital waiting for an opening in a mental health institution.
Suggestions from the crowd also included arming teachers; having weapons stationed in lock boxes with certain school staff authorized to access and use them in an emergency; increasing security and control at entrances to schools; placing at least one SRO in every elementary school; possible placement of non-lethal weapons, such as tazers in the schools or classrooms; and installing systems that could simultaneously lock all classroom doors from one location.
The group, despite having no authority or official standing, agreed to form an advisory committee, including a member from each school district and two each from the larger districts, One and Five. That committee will continue to formulate plans for such activities as implementing additional training programs for school personnel.
Towards that end, the Sheriff’s Department is sponsoring an active shooter seminar on Feb. 28 at the Anderson Civic Center. A retired FBI hostage negotiator, Stephen J. Romano, will conduct the classes. Several hundred are expected to attend.
District One Associate Superintendent David Havird reassured the crowd that every district is working to improve their plans and security. “Each school has a site specific plan in place, telling the various staff members what to do and where to go.”
Skipper also pointed out that the new 911 center is able to tap into and view live streaming video from the various schools’ closed circuit camera feeds. “Our technological capacity to anticipate and respond is always improving, but at the same time, you have to resist the tendency to become complacent because of it.”
Havirdwas also clearly less than enthusiastic about the idea of armed teachers. “That approach raises a lot of issues, frankly. It would certainly not be our first option. Teachers are by nature and training there to nurture and help students grow. I think there would be a real psychological barrier for them to shoot a young man whom they might have taught previously.”
“It isn’t hardened killers that do these things,” added Havird. “It is disturbed young men most often, and they frequently have past ties to the school. We would certainly prefer to see trained professional personnel in our schools.”
Williamston Police Chief Tony Taylor agreed. “It’s one thing to put an armed teacher in a classroom. But you have to understand, that bullet has no care for where it is going. Once it is fired, that person is responsible for the consequences. It takes a certain set of mind and a lot of training.”
Rep. Bowen passed out petitions to be distributed and signed through out the county. “We will be asking the General Assembly to appropriate money for this matter, as they will across the state. I’d like to have a big thick pile of petitions to show them that this is what the people of Anderson County want.”