Dorchester incidents have officials seeking answers
SUMMERVILLE — Three gun-related incidents during the past two weeks in Dorchester District 2 schools have officials here searching for ways to prevent weapons from entering schools and endangering students and staff.
On Wednesday, district officials held an initial brainstorming session with principals and local law enforcement officers in an attempt to get a handle on the problem. Roughly 30 participants discussed options, including holding a series of parent meetings, spreading awareness about the consequences of firearms, and even installing metal detectors.
Exact plans will be hashed out at future meetings, but North Charleston Assistant Police Chief Arthur Smalls said worried parents should be heartened to hear that local leaders already are working together to address the situation. It's not common to see the 1st Circuit Solicitor's Office, Dorchester County sheriff's deputies, North Charleston police, Summerville police, district officials, principals and parents huddled at the same table, he said.
"I think this meeting sends a clear message that we are taking this very seriously," Smalls said.
On Oct. 26, a 14-year-old student at River Oaks Middle School took bullets to school and reportedly also threatened to take a gun and shoot people. On Monday, an 11-year-old elementary school student at Eagle Nest, which shares a campus with River Oaks, took a loaded gun to school and showed it to other children in a school bathroom.
On Tuesday, a search of a 17-year-old Fort Dorchester High School student in the school's parking lot revealed a loaded gun in his bookbag.
Superintendent Joe Pye said all three cases have stunned officials in a district known for high test scores and football prowess rather than for guns and violence. Pye was at Eagle Nest Elementary Monday when school officials discovered the 11-year-old's gun. The superintendent said he was shocked to encounter a firearm at an elementary school.
"It hasn't ever happened here before," Pye said. "I've been taken aback all week. You just think it's not going to happen in Summerville, South Carolina."
Participants at Wednesday's discussion focused on the need to better communicate the punishments associated with taking weapons to campus, which include expulsion and, potentially, time in a juvenile facility. Parents who own guns also must take measures to keep them away from children, law enforcement officials said.
Vergil Deas, an assistant solicitor in Dorchester County, said his office has a zero-tolerance policy when students take firearms to school and tries to fast-track the cases through the court system so youths are punished as soon as possible.
Parents who leave guns in accessible locations around the house can't be arrested, but the solicitor's office can call the Department of Social Services and ask the agency to investigate the family's home life, with the potential for abuse or neglect charges, Deas said.
Officials said the weapons were readily available to students in two of the three recent cases.
In order to better reach parents about the importance of gun safety, participants discussed using the district's new automated phone system to call all parents. Those who answer the phone would hear the voice of law enforcement officials such as Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash, who would remind them about gun safety.
Metal detectors are not a solution in large schools with numerous entrances, and it would be a logistical nightmare to guard all the access points at each school, law enforcement officials said. Nash said he favors taking wands or hand-held detectors to schools. Sheriff's deputies could enter classrooms on a random basis, searching students' desks, bookbags or lockers for weapons, Nash said.
Smalls said North Charleston police also have qualms about metal detectors because of the perception that spreads in the community. "We want to protect kids, but we hate to see schools look like prisons," he said.
Principals and school resource officers also shared successful strategies used at individual schools, with the hope that some of the programs could be replicated. At DuBose Middle School, school resource officers hang posters in the hallways explaining the consequences of having weapons on campus or disturbing school.
At Oakbrook Middle School, Principal Garland Crump said the school resource officer spoke to every class to get students to pledge not to bring guns to school.
"All of our 930 kids now know the moral, ethical, behavioral and legal issues behind bringing a gun to school," Crump said. "But this isn't a program you can do one time and then let it go."
Parent-teacher associations at each school will organize awareness meetings in the coming weeks, and district officials plan to continue sessions with local law enforcement agencies.
Connie Bush, a Fort Dorchester High School parent who leads the region's PTA, said she credits the district for being proactive in discussing the incidents. She said Dorchester County's population boom has led to overcrowded schools, making it difficult for school officials to know students on an individual basis. That could contribute to students feeling disconnected from school and not realizing the consequences of taking guns to campus, she said.
Still, Bush said she thinks her child is "perfectly safe" at Fort Dorchester, despite the gun found in the parking lot on Tuesday.
"We don't have nearly as much violence as schools in big cities," Bush said. "But we do know the potential is there."