The Charleston County School Board is moving toward placing an armed police officer in each of the district's 49 public primary and elementary schools, but at least one law enforcement agency is questioning whether that's the best way to keep them safe.
The school district would commit $1.8 million a year toward salaries, equipment and training for the officers. In a unanimous vote Monday, the board told district staff to negotiate with local officials to cover the rest of the cost.
The proposal also won unanimous support from the board's Operations Committee a week ago, but it has drawn skepticism from at least one agency: the Charleston Police Department.
In the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., different police agencies took different steps to secure their schools. The North Charleston Police Department quickly agreed to pay for one school resource officer to work full-time at each public elementary school in its city limits, but the Charleston Police Department took a different approach.
Under the leadership of then-Chief Greg Mullen, the agency assigned 18 officers to a newly formed School Security Response Team. Working in geographic clusters across the city, those officers now provide security to 45 schools, including public elementary schools as well as private and charter schools that did not previously have officers.
Rather than staying stationed at one school every day, the officers rotate constantly, in an unpredictable pattern meant to deter crime.
Capt. Chito Walker, the department's West Patrol Division commander, said the SSRT approach has some advantages. It allows the department to protect all schools, not just the public ones. The officers on the team are highly trained in crisis response, stress inoculation and techniques that go beyond those of the average patrol officer.
Perhaps most importantly, they're trained to work as a team. When Mitchell Elementary recently received a report of a gun on campus, not only was an officer already at the school, but the entire cluster of officers converged on the school at once, according to Walker. The report turned out to be a prank call, but Walker said the rapid response showed the effectiveness of the SSRT approach.
Newly installed Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said he was glad the school district renewed the conversation about police presence in elementary schools, and he wants to continue it.
"We want to find the best possible way to get the best possible outcome. We feel like we're in a good place currently," Reynolds said. "Would we want more resources? We always want more cops in the police department. But is that necessarily the best use of those resources to keep our kids safe? I think there's a lot more discussion that would be beneficial."
The School Board passed the school resource officer proposal without discussion Monday night, but board members and district staff have been talking about improving school security since police found students with guns at North Charleston High twice last fall.
Board Chair Kate Darby said she welcomes input from the Charleston Police Department, but she also hopes law enforcement officials will listen to what parents have to say.
"As a mother in 2018, what I've heard loud and clear from parents in this community is they want a school resource officer in every school," she said. "We're bringing it forward because that's what they're telling us."
The Charleston County School District has at least one resource officer working in each of its middle and high schools. Police presence in elementary schools varies by jurisdiction.
Shortly after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., the Mount Pleasant Police Department began sending off-duty police officers to work in each of the town's nine elementary and primary schools and the charter high school Oceanside Collegiate Academy.
The Charleston County Sheriff's Office sends patrol officers to check in on elementary schools within its jurisdiction on a regular basis.