Police question use of private security in Chester schools

Chester County Sheriff's Deputy Calvin Carter is the SRO at Chester High School.
Chester County Sheriff's Deputy Calvin Carter is the SRO at Chester High School.

More top police officers are questioning Chester County school officials’ decision to replace sheriff’s deputies as school resource officers with private security guards starting in July.

York Police Chief Andy Robinson, whose officers work as school resource police officers at York schools, said replacing police with private guards is “unconscionable.”

Just last week, he said, York County prosecutors showed how a school resource officer played a crucial role earlier this year in the investigation of a York teen who admitted to having plans to join the terror group ISIS and plotting with a Muslim extremist to rob a gun store, with the ultimate goal of killing American soldiers.

“Saving money at the expense of a child’s safety is unconscionable,” Robinson said. “Even though there will be more ‘people’ employed in the schools, they do not have the training or the experience to effectively deal with what they will be exposed to.”

In a move that drew harsh criticism from Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, the school district last week hired Defender Services of Columbia to provide 10 security officers – one for each of the district’s nine campuses, plus a supervisor. Currently, four deputies work the schools as school resource officers.

Schools leaders say their plan will provide safer schools for students and employees, but Underwood maintains security officers cannot provide the level of safety fully-trained deputies do.

State and national school resource officer organizations also have expressed their concerns to Underwood, saying the use of school resource officers in almost all school districts across the country has proven effective.

“The question is, what are you trying to do?” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, an advocacy group. “Are you trying to guard the door, or are you trying to perform community-based policing that school resource officers provide that security guards don’t?”

It is not uncommon for schools to augment resource officers with private security, Canady said, and his group provides a three-day training for “school safety officers” who work alongside police. Canady said he has not heard of schools that opt for private guards only.

School officials say having nine armed security officers with arrest powers, rather than four sheriff’s deputies trying to handle all nine campuses, will increase security at all campuses because a visible, uniformed, armed officer will be on every campus every school day.

All security officers will be “highly trained,” the district says, and consist mainly of retired police and military veterans, supervised by a retired 28-year veteran of the Highway Patrol.

How much training the new security officers will receive remains unclear. It also is unclear who will provide the training. The district has not provided The Herald with a copy of its contract with Defender Services. Efforts to reach school officials for comment were unsuccessful Friday.

All four school districts in York County use certified police officers as school resource officers.

In Lancaster County, three school resource officers work the four county high schools, while private armed security officers handle two middle schools and an alternative school, Sheriff Barry Faile said.

“I would rather have sworn officers in the schools,” he said, “but I don’t have the funding to provide this in my budget.”

Bryan Vaughn, safety and transportation director for Lancaster County schools, said the district has been pleased with the private guards at three schools this year, after a pilot program that started two years ago with one private officer at a single middle school.

The district contracts with AlliedBarton Security Services, which has offices in Charlotte and Columbia, for three private officers stationed at two middle schools and the alternative school. Two are former police officers who graduated from the state Criminal Justice Academy, and the third is a former corrections officer who graduated from the state Department of Corrections Training Academy.

The private officers have provided good service at the middle school level, Vaughn said, and parents and staff have not reported problems.

“It has worked out wonderfully,” he said.

However, at the middle and elementary level, Vaughn said, school officers have a different role than in high schools, where he believes that a police officer is required because there are more incidents and the students are older.

York County’s four school districts employ a combination of deputies and municipal police officers as school resource officers in all high schools. Many have officers at middle schools. Elementary schools use the closest SRO from the other campuses, school officials said. None employ private guards, officials said, and they have no plans to hire any.

Chester school officials started considering hiring private security officers in 2013, after the mass school shooting in Connecticut, which happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which had no police or armed guard presence.

State law requires any police officer who works as a school resource officer receive at least 160 hours of special SRO training in how to handle children and school-related situations – in addition to the 500-plus hours of training to be a certified police officer.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065