pc-022018-ne-gunrally (March 1, 2018 copy)

Parents and students rally in Marion Square Monday Feb. 19, to demand legislative change after the latest school shooting in Florida. Leroy Burnell/Staff

COLUMBIA — Every K-12 public school in South Carolina should be patrolled by an armed law enforcement officer immediately — no matter what the cost, Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday.

State schools Superintendent Molly Spearman separately recommended staffing every school with a mental health counselor.

Both multimillion-dollar suggestions would require funding approved by the Legislature. Neither Republican politician had a cost estimate or suggestion about where to find the money in a state already struggling with K-12 funding.

"This is imperative. This is something that must be done," McMaster said after addressing a school safety summit he organized at the University of South Carolina.

The effort should happen "yesterday," he said. 

McMaster included $5 million in his budget proposal in January to put 75 school resource officers in the state's poorest schools, saying at the time his goal was to eventually put a certified officer in every school.

There are more than 1,200 schools statewide. It's unclear how many don't have a certified officer assigned only to that campus. In a 2017 survey, 341 of the schools that responded said they had none. Some schools share officers. 

Asked about the additional cost, McMaster responded, "Then we'll ask for more."

His budget was released before a gunman killed 17 people at a Florida high school Feb. 14. The officer assigned to that school stayed outside the school during the attack and since resigned. McMaster did not address that.   

McMaster has said he also would sign legislation allowing teachers to possess guns in school. On Thursday, he said those teachers need to be trained. 

“The first is arming not the teachers, but the certified law enforcement officers,” he said. “A teacher — or most school personnel — does not have the kind of experience, the kind of relationships and connections with law enforcement that a trained officer would.”

As for mental health, it's unclear how many schools lack the mental health counselors Spearman says are needed to address the growing social and emotional problems students are bringing to schools. 

Spearman also wants every teacher trained on how to recognize red-flag behaviors from students before they turn violent. 

"So when they see anything suspicious, they will know what to do, how to report it, and who to go to," she said.

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The training would largely be conducted through online courses the agency is developing with the State Law Enforcement Division.

The required classes could be ready before the coming school year, Spearman said. 

"Our teachers need training in how to address mental health needs," said Erin Fox, a teacher at Gaffney High School and the 2017 state Teacher of the Year.     

Last week, Spearman announced her agency is reviewing school security issues at districts across the state. She also supports requiring active shooter drills.

Some GOP House members have proposed a bill letting teachers or other employees carry firearms at school after training. That bill has not had a hearing.

The House has also passed legislation creating a panel to study putting metal detectors in schools, which also could cost millions of dollars more.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.