COLUMBIA — An effort to put a police officer in every public school in South Carolina has hit a financial roadblock.
S.C. State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told a House panel Wednesday he thinks school resource officers are the best solution to securing schools and deterring shootings, echoing what he told senators last month.
How to pay for them remains the question.
The House Education subcommittee postponed voting on a bill that would require an officer in every school almost immediately but provide no money to help pay for it.
Keel called that unrealistic, noting hundreds of officers would have to be hired and trained.
“It takes time,” he said, adding it also “takes a special officer. Some work out great in high school, but you wouldn’t want to put them in an elementary school,” and vice-versa.
Some sheriffs say simply diverting existing officers isn’t an option. They already lack sufficient manpower.
Fewer than 500 officers are employed in nearly 1,400 schools statewide. They work mostly in middle and high schools, with a few dozen in elementary schools, according to the Education Department’s survey of districts. A dozen rural districts did not respond.
Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said he supports the concept but worries about the unfunded mandate. In Aiken County alone, more than 30 schools lack officers, he said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bakari Sellers, said he plans to offer an amendment that replaces the seven-day implementation with a date to begin the process. He also expects some state funding, though local governments and school districts would have to pitch in, too.
“Everyone has to make sacrifices,” said Sellers, D-Denmark.
But representatives of school districts and law enforcement contend the state should foot the full bill.
That could cost $90 million in the first year, said Jeff Moore of the state Sheriffs Association.
Start-up costs likely average $85,000 per officer statewide, to including training and providing a uniform, vehicle and weapon. In successive years, salary and benefits could average $50,000 per officer, Moore said.
It’s not the first time the Legislature has considered funding officers in schools.
That was also the top recommendation in a 1999 report by a South Carolina safe schools task force that followed the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
That resulted in the Legislature putting $6.9 million in the budget for less than 200 school resource officers, Moore said.
Sellers said it’s troubling the same questions continue, 14 years later.
“The apathy is sickening,” said Sellers, D-Denmark. “We pay for our priorities.”
Sellers recalled the pre-Columbine, 1995 shooting at Blackville-Hilda High School, in which a recently suspended,16-year-old student killed one teacher and wounded another before turning the gun on himself. Sellers was 11 at the time but said he remembers going to the scene with his father, then a state board of education member.
“I remember the utter chaos,” said Sellers, whose district includes Blackville. “What I don’t want to happen is that situation to happen again.”
The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Andy Patrick, said his reservations about the bill are not about the cost. The former Secret Service agent said the larger solution involves educating people to recognize and report behaviors that indicate someone’s “on a pathway to violence.”
He said he doubts a school officer could have identified the Newtown, Conn., shooter as a potential threat, since he wasn’t a student.
“The SRO program is great, but it’s not a silver bullet to the overall challenge of targeted violence,” said Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, adding he’s unsure if officers are “the right fit in elementary schools.”