CHESTER — Weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre that left 20 children dead in Connecticut, sheriff’s deputies managed to “infiltrate” 12 of 13 Chester County schools to explore and expose their safety flaws.
Those weaknesses, investigators said, included unsecured doors, poor lighting in some areas and outdated security cameras.
The school district has addressed most of those safety concerns with added security measures, but Sheriff Alex Underwood’s request for money from the County Council to hire seven more school resource officers was denied, despite the school district’s pledge to pay half the cost.
Of the sheriff’s 54 sworn deputies, four are paid to work at schools in Chester, Great Falls and Lewisville, said Lt. Dwayne Robinson, who supervises those officers.
Chester County has about 5,400 students at 13 schools in 10 buildings, according to the school district.
Chester Park Elementary School of Inquiry, Chester Park School of the Arts and Chester Park Center of Literacy Through Technology (COLT) are housed in one building on S.C. 9.
One SRO is assigned to all three elementary schools, which serve almost 1,500 students, along with the facilities on McCandless Road, which include Chester Middle School, an alternative school for students who have been expelled, the school district office and its transportation office.
“He’s got all of that on that big campus,” Robinson said. “Just that one guy over there.”
A second officer covers Great Falls elementary, middle and high schools. A third patrols the elementary, middle and high schools in Lewisville.
A fourth officer is assigned to Chester High School – the “busiest” school in the county with 821 students – and the adjoining Chester County Career Center, Robinson said.
“We need more people,” he said. “We’re in a bind.”
It’s not uncommon for a school resource officer’s duties to be split between more than one school.
Faced with a fight at one school, or an irate student at another, Robinson said, officers often have to prioritize which situations they will respond to first.
“It’s very often that you have something going on at the middle school, because it’s the biggest middle school in the county – it’s the second-busiest school in the district – and have them call you down at the COLT,” where teachers and staff serve students with special needs, he said.
“Obviously, you want to get to the COLT” because the students require special accommodations.
The choice isn’t always cut-and-dried.
Deputies sometimes have to call the Chester High School SRO to help with a situation at another school, while an off-duty deputy who “moonlights” as an SRO takes his spot at the high school and career center, Robinson said.
Great Falls benefits from a joint high school and middle school complex. The elementary school is less than two miles away. More than 850 students attend the three schools, according to the school district.
If the officer stationed at the high school/middle school complex is called to the elementary school, he has to drive there. If there’s an issue while he’s gone, “we don’t have the luxury” of pulling in reserves, Robinson said.
Instead, deputies rely on Great Falls police officers, or a volunteer constable who helps deputies twice a week without pay, he said.
In Richburg, one SRO oversees Lewisville Middle School on S.C. 9 and the elementary and high schools, both of which are five-minute drives away on Lewisville High School Road. About 1,250 students attend the three schools.
But problems aren’t as frequent in Great Falls and Richburg, both of which have populations that together add to less than 2,300.
“The (Great Falls) area is so condensed, everybody is mostly family, you don’t usually have as many problems,” Robinson said. “Same thing when you get to the (Richburg) area.”
The end of the school day doesn’t mean an SRO is off duty, he said. Officers work sporting events, banquets, club programs and other extracurricular activities.
“It stretches us thin,” Robinson said. “A lot of times we have to call in off-duty officers to assist us because we just don’t have the manpower.”
Despite their small numbers, Chester County’s SROs have won statewide recognition.
During a recent S.C. Association of School Resource Officers awards banquet, they won “School Resource Officer Program of the Year,” and Underwood was named law administrator of the year. Robinson was named “SRO of the Year” by S.C. Drug Abuse Resistance Education Association.
Chester SROs are “cross-trained” as community police officers, Robinson said.
“You’re getting two for the price of one,” he said. “If you can get two for the price of one, why not?”
In January, a group of unshaven, plain-clothed narcotics deputies walked in and through all but one Chester County school effortlessly during the school day without raising suspicions, Underwood said.
Their mission was to expose possible security flaws.
“I even gave one of the narcotics guys a backpack so it would be sort of obvious,” he said. “We were able to enter every school in Chester County…except for Lewisville Middle School.”
Underwood instructed deputies to go back into the schools a second time while students were in class. One officer reported that he was able to walk into one school’s cafeteria and grab a tray as if he were going to eat lunch.
Other deputies peered into doors while teachers were leading classes. The teachers, he said, “never said anything about it.”
A substitute teacher in one of the schools spotted two of the undercover deputies and asked them why they were on school grounds. They told her they were going to the principal’s office, so the teacher escorted them to the administrative office.
“That’s what she’s supposed to do,” Underwood said.
But while in the school office, one of the deputies asked to use the bathroom. Office workers directed him to restrooms down the hall out the office.
“They actually sent him back into the school” without an escort, Underwood said. “The whole mission behind (the undercover operation) was to open the eyes of the staff and the principals – not to make them look bad – but let them understand we need to up our game.”
“What we were trying to do was identify the areas we needed to beef up,” said Chester Superintendent Agnes Slayman.
Slayman said she was aware of Underwood’s plans and gave deputies full access to the schools. She did not notify administrators or teachers because, “I didn’t want anybody on alert.”
The sheriff’s findings were presented to each school’s principal and the school board, Slayman said.
None of the results surprised her.
“We knew we had some things that we needed to do in terms of beefing up entrances and putting cameras in,” she said.
Local police vetting a school’s security is not unprecedented, said Chris Dorn, an analyst with Safe Havens, an international school safety consulting firm.
Some states provide police departments with resources and checklists to help them assess schools in their district, Dorn said. The method is similar to one used by Safe Havens, which last year audited Rock Hill schools and found several safety concerns.
“Most schools and districts have been working on updated plans and procedures” for the last several years, he said.
Some of those plans have included hopes for more police officers on campus, he said, which can be difficult for school districts without much money or staffing.
“Most of the schools we have worked with around the country are working with similar budgets from year to year,” he said. “People are paying attention to it. There are already cases where (districts) are finding money where there hasn’t been any in the past.”
Other districts unable to find money have hired security companies to patrol their schools – a solution Dorn said is not as effective as assigning trained law enforcement.
Still, “generally, schools are safer than we might imagine,” he said. “Things like Sandy Hook are a rare occurrence.”
Medical emergencies, dangerous animal attacks and child abductions by non-custodial parents are more pressing concerns that school districts deal with daily, he said.
Chester County’s safety issues are typical – but still “not ideal” – problems that many schools face, Dorn said.
‘Eyes and ears’
Chester school officials have created a safety team, tightened security protocol, updated contact information and provided police with layouts of all the schools, Slayman said.
The school board approved money to add secondary entrances to every school in the district. Before, visitors could walk through one door into the school without having to be buzzed through a second.
Each office and classroom will be equipped with a telephone, Slayman said, and the school board has approved spending $1 million to install security cameras to cover the exterior and interior of 12 schools.
The mobile cameras can be accessed from an administrator’s iPad, cell phone or computer, she said. Installation started in May and has been finished on the Chester Park campus, Chester middle and high schools and the career center.
Cameras at Great Falls High School were being installed last week.
Those cameras will cover the cracks and corners of the county’s schools where more SRO’s won’t.
SRO’s “serve as just an additional set of eyes and ears,” Slayman said. “It’s my feeling that you can’t ever really have too many people watching out.”
During budget discussions, the school district, which already spends $87,000 a year to help the county pay the four SROs, agreed to pay $140,000 more to hire seven more officers, said Anna Stroud, the schools’ finance director.
School officials asked the county to supply the other half of the cost and outfit the SROs with equipment and uniforms, she said.
“We didn’t have the money,” said Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey. “We don’t go out and frivolously spend money.”
Though the school district agreed to foot half the bill, “they’ve got more money than we’ve got,” Roddey said. “We just funded what we funded last year.”
No administrative department in the county received new staffing this year, Roddey said, because “we don’t have the money.” The County Council approved a 3 percent raise for county employees that will not take effect until January. Before, county employees had not received a raise in about six years.
Roddey said he told county department heads that hiring more employees would not be possible.
When Sheriff Underwood submitted his request for more school resource officers, along with other line items, Roddey said, “it was a ton.”
“I fund them as much as I can,” he said. “I give them what I can.”
Budget documents show that Underwood asked the council for more than $2.8 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The council gave him more than $2.4 million.
Money for building projects or equipment are specifically earmarked and cannot be used for operating or personnel expenses.
In 2011, the county hired six new detention center officers to compensate for the larger, $11 million law enforcement complex on Dawson Drive. This year, Underwood asked for nearly $1.9 million for the detention center, but received about $1.7 million – a $68,000 increase from 2012, he said.
In its $16.4 million budget, the county allocated more money to the sheriff’s office than any other county department, followed by the detention center and EMS.
Without enough county money to hire more SROs, Underwood said, his office is pursuing a grant that would pay for at least two more officers.
‘Times have changed’
During spring break, Slayman watched as police from neighboring counties gathered at Chester Middle School for live school-shooting scenarios using “simunition,” or training ammunition.
SLED agents acted as gunmen, while some deputies portrayed hostages. The rest had to breach the building and rescue them.
“They could hear the gunshots going off down the hall, and they had to tactically get to that gunfire and eliminate the threat,” Underwood said. “If you have somebody actively shooting in a school, you need to stop them right then…you can’t wait.”
Since then, Underwood said, he has consulted with SLED, the SWAT team and bomb squad about a multi-jurisdictional response in case of a school shooting.
“We went to the schools and walked through the schools,” Underwood said. “We all put our heads together to come up with a plan of what we’re going to need, what we suggested and to give them a good layout of what it looks like.”
Should a school tragedy take place, he said, state law enforcement officials would be called to assist the county.
School shootings are no longer a question of “if,” Robinson said, but “when.”
According to stoptheshootings.org, a website that collects national school shooting data, there have been 387 shootings at U.S. schools since 1992 – with Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook named among the deadliest.
Six of them have been in South Carolina, none in Chester County.
“The point is, why take the chance of not having our children protected?” Underwood said. “We’ve got to be prepared and the best way to do it is to have people there.”
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082