Charleston police look to create presence in elementary schools
A police officer walked onto the playground where children booted a soccer ball and scrambled over a jungle gym.
Amount: $3.9 millionTaxpayer cost: $40 more a year on a house valued at $250,000For: Would pay for 19 police officers to patrol all the public and private elementary schools in the Charleston city limits; eight more officers for patrolling the “entertainment zone” around bars, restaurants and clubs downtown; and hire 45 firefighters, build two new fire stations and add four new engines, tankers and ladder trucks.
He spoke with Cathie Middleton, co-principal at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary, about security on the campus. Middleton pointed out possible weaknesses in the fence line, where intruders could enter.
Then a boy jogged up behind the officer.
“Can you say, ‘Hi?’ ” the principal asked the pupil.
Instead, he gave the officer a high-five. For the boy, who is typically shy in social situations, it was a breakthrough. The principal cheered him.
“Having police officers stop by helps children see that they are supportive people in our community,” Middleton said. “We love having their presence.”
The concept is central to a proposal that Charleston Mayor Joe Riley recently presented to heighten security in elementary schools since the massacre in Newtown, Conn. Riley will ask during a council meeting Tuesday for a $3.9 million tax hike on property owners to fund 19 officers to police all 35 of the city’s public and private elementary schools.
Riley said that such a plan last week might have halted a woman from trying to shoot school officials at downtown’s Ashley Hall, as police allege. She pulled the trigger, police said, but her pistol didn’t fire.
“Everyone did a great job — the school, the police. They acted quickly and professionally,” Riley said.
“But if wasn’t for her inability to operate (the gun), it would have been different.”
A much-scaled-down approach already has been employed in the weeks since gunman Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary in December.
Officers in the Charleston Police Department have made frequent stops at schools within their patrol zones to address administrators’ concerns and make their presence known.
Senior Police Officer Chris Koegler, the lawman accompanying Middleton during a recent visit, said he might be interested in participating in the patrols, if they are approved.
The idea, he said, not only makes children comfortable with the police but also acts as an unpredictable deterrent for anyone bent on invading a school campus.
Assigning a single officer to a single school would not only be expensive, Koegler said, but it could show authorities’ hand for protecting students.
Not knowing where an officer will be at a given time adds an element of surprise.
“(Police officers) are going from school to school to school, so you never know where they’re going to be,” Koegler said. “You never want to do the same things every day. People learn that. They’ll adjust to it.”
Koegler, an eight-year veteran of the Charleston police force, started a recent day at Drayton Hall Elementary.
Despite Koegler’s uniform, a front-desk worker asked for his driver’s license. He produced it, and the worker scanned it and printed out a hall pass.
Looks can be deceiving, Koegler said. Even people with a badge must check in before walking through the school. He recalled a recent episode when he was caught without the ID.
“She definitely did her job the other day,” he said. “When I was walking around, I didn’t have a hall pass. She said ‘Could you come to the office?’”
Koegler acknowledged that the program will have kinks that need ironing out. Even in his checks, he has encountered administrators who view the police presence as a disruption.
For example, children might be worried that something bad is happening when they see the police.
Patrol officers also have rotating schedules, which means that an officer who makes the checks one week may not be back to do it the next week.
But the mayor’s proposed program would create teams of at least three officers assigned to patrol schools in eight geographic zones citywide.
“Every time you see a different officer at school, it’s, ‘What’s going on today? What’s going on today?’” he said. “But when they start seeing familiar people, they get a little better with it.”
Koegler continued his rounds, stopping next at Middleton’s school, which is tucked behind the Westwood Plaza Shopping Center in West Ashley.
Alongside Middleton, the officer strolled through the halls and was greeted with bulging eyes, waves, stares and frequent yelps of “Hi!”
“Those look like toy handcuffs,” one boy remarked.
No matter the security measures taken, Middleton said, holes are inevitable.
Located near stores and banks, her school has seen its share of criminals fresh from a robbery run near the property. Teachers and students know the lockdown drill by heart, she said.
After the Connecticut tragedy, teachers practiced hypothetical crises that challenged them to guard their students.
They learned what classroom objects they could use as weapons, how to hide, how to escape.
She mirrored recent statements by Sheriff Al Cannon that school shooters manage to circumvent laws and security measures.But complementing teachers’ resourcefulness with a police officer wouldn’t hurt, she said.
“If there’s somebody who really wants to do harm, they’re going to figure out a way to do it,” Middleton said. “The only thing we can do is be as prepared as we can be.”