Charleston police program gets elementary schools, officers working on same page
In mid-January, when a parent called Charleston Day School about a man fiddling with a perimeter gate, Principal Brendan O’Shea walked outside to investigate.
The man had ripped out wires to an electronic keypad at the downtown private school on Archdale Street. As students attended classes, the man also had dropped his pants and urinated.
O’Shea persuaded him to leave and later called police, who arrested him.
Security concerns posed after the encounter were heightened two weeks later when Alice Boland showed up with a gun at Ashley Hall, another downtown private school on Rutledge Avenue, and, police said, tried to shoot an administrator.
The schools avoided tragedy in the two instances, but such run-ins, O’Shea said, are why the Charleston Police Department’s new School Security Response Team is needed.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d call the police first,” O’Shea said. “I’d know they’d be here quickly.”
Funded by a property tax hike approved this year, the 18 officers and one supervisor on the special force will patrol the city’s 35 public and private elementary schools. Instead of being stationed at a particular campus, three officers on six teams will bounce among the schools within their assigned “cluster.”
Their unpredictable transience will put them at an advantage if a school is ever faced with a gunman bent on mass murder, police officials said. They also will coordinate emergency response plans that the officers and teachers are familiar with.
The idea came about partially because of the killings of 20 children and six adults in December at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary. Its need was compounded, city officials said, by the Ashley Hall episode.
North Charleston also moved to address elementary schools’ safety, but it went a different route and hired school resource officers to be stationed on each campus.
A group of parents from Ashley Hall spoke in favor of the new program when the Charleston City Council approved its funding in February. One of them, Michel Faliero, called the effort “more unique and dynamic” than most.
The officers will look for suspicious activity around schools. They will stop an erratic driver near a campus, but they won’t routinely write tickets, and they won’t respond to calls in nearby neighborhoods.
“Their comings and goings are completely random to any observers,” Faliero said. “It’s a higher level of security than we’ve had, but it’s done in a way that’s not going to be intimidating to the kids.”
All the Charleston officers built experience elsewhere in the police department before they volunteered for the new posts, and were selected by a panel of commanders. Many told the commanders they were pulled to the new job because they knew someone in the school system.
It resulted in a group of former SWAT team members, surveillance specialists, detectives, undercover narcotics agents and patrol officers. Together, Chief Greg Mullen said, they will have the expertise to point out flaws in school defenses and to quickly handle an intruder. They also will test school employees by sending people to request access without a valid reason.
During summers they will continue their training and patrol neighborhoods near their assigned schools.
“You never know when this is going to happen in a school where hundreds of lives are at stake,” Mullen said. “These men and women have got to come to work every day understanding the seriousness of this assignment.”
The force came together just in time for the first day of school Wednesday.
During two weeks of training, the members learned advanced first-aid techniques. They refined their skills at searching buildings and clearing them of any threat.
They were immersed in “active shooter” drills in which others played the role of an armed suspect. They endured screams and the sound of gunshots as they passed by simulated victims to stop a situation from worsening.
That’s a different mindset for patrol officers who typically wait for a SWAT team to respond and help any victims within reach, said Sgt. Jason Bruder, who supervises the squad. The focus has shifted to preventing others from becoming victims, he said.
“Schools offer a target-rich environment,” Bruder said. “If we don’t go in and stop the threat, it’s going to depend on the suspect ending it.”
On the second day of school this week, Officer Mark Rosborg made his rounds to the seven schools in the southernmost of the two downtown clusters.
At Charleston Day School, he spoke with the principal about security reinforcements made since the day in February when Boland waved a handgun outside Ashley Hall.
The school installed a buzzer system on the front door, requiring visitors to identify themselves and state their purpose before being allowed inside. It reinforced gates around the perimeter.
O’Shea, who leads the 259-student day school, said teachers there also were versed in terms that public schools use. A Code Red, for instance, denotes an immediate threat to someone’s safety.
The new force will help revise the plans that schools created to address certain incidents. The schemes include traffic detours and a place for parents to pick up their children.
“If something did happen, we won’t be wasting time sorting out those details,” Rosborg said. “Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.”
Rosborg, a newlywed whose wife is a teacher in West Ashley, has been the recipient of handshakes from parents and high-fives from students this week. Next week, he’ll read books to kindergartners.
On Thursday, as Rosborg walked through Charleston Day, a second-grade boy suggested that he check out Gary Paulsen’s book “Hatchet.” A girl took a breath and suggested, “My name is Mina and I love the night: Anything seems possible at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep,” a long-winded title that drew laughs.
It’s the kind of interaction that Rosborg hopes will make the children feel comfortable with officers if their school is ever beset with an emergency.
After he listened in on one student’s description of a science experiment, Rosborg waved goodbye to pupils sitting under a model of the solar system.
“Thank you, Officer Mark!” they all said as he continued his patrol.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.