Andrew Dys

As Chester leaders fight, the public takes the real punch

SPECIAL TO THE HERALD

Uncountable students at Chester Park Elementary School got straight A grades last week, and nobody but their parents and wonderful teachers noticed. Mothers and fathers struggled to work at one or two jobs and then came home to fix a late meal and drop dead tired into bed.

Nobody knew.

Chester’s leaders, however, were in the media spotlight all week because of controversies.

The schools decided to drop sheriff’s deputies in favor of private security guards. Starting in July, no deputies – not even in Chester County’s three high schools – will patrol the hallways.

Schools across the nation are asking for more officers, not less.

Except in Chester.

Sure, the nine campuses will each have an armed guard, without question an improvement in numbers over four deputies. But Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood pledged in his first weeks in office in 2013 that he would do whatever it took to put a deputy in each school if the politicians would pay for it. He pledged this along with the schools superintendent.

At the time, Chester County politicians called that request “frivolous.”

Now the superintendent and the county’s top politicians are all for cut-rate security guards. The guards may be ex-officers, or even ex-military, but they are not certified police who, by taking the oath at the state criminal justice academy, agree to put the lives of strangers’ kids ahead of their own.

Security guards have less training. Security guards report to a company that counts profits. Police officers report to the public.

Chester is one of South Carolina’s poorest counties. It has about 33,000 people, with about 6,000 of them at a school 180 days a year.

The new guards will cost money, which the people of Chester County will pay. Chester schools want to divert the $101,000 that Chester County now spends on those four deputies to the new guards.

One South Carolina sheriff said politics should never be placed ahead of kids’ safety.

“You put politics in front of public safety, the safety of children, it is a recipe for disaster,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. “That decision in Chester to take the school resource officers out of schools is pure politics.”

Underwood said to anyone who would listen that kids’ safety comes first. He could easily wash his hands of the schools and put those four deputies to work elsewhere, if county leaders don’t take the money for those four deputies and give it to the schools for the guards.

Underwood may have a flair for the cameras – and if Chester had a lake he would ask for a submarine and a crew to man it – but without question, he is trying to lead. Gangs are responsible for just a small percentage of all crime in Chester, and a task force has spent months looking at the problem. How can anyone fault Underwood for “declaring war on gangs” and asking for more deputies when shocking killings in Chester are gang related?

Underwood is asking to do more, not less.

He is doing what he was elected to do: lead.

He is asking for more responsibility, not less. More accountability, not less.

That is why people elect leaders: To lead.

Chester’s clerk to county council was sacked last week for allegedly changing the minutes of a meeting. Council members couldn’t agree on what to do, or how to do it, after the new supervisor, Shane Stuart, fired the clerk.

Stuart is a former Chester school resource officer – just like the four who were dumped by the schools last week. He called that decision to hire security over deputies “shocking.” No other school district nearby is considering taking all deputies out. All are trying to get more in.

Except Chester.

Monday afternoon, Underwood will argue his budget before county council members. He or his staff will remind the council that any decision to take money for security guards means possibly four less deputies in the schools and on the streets, visibly deterring crime with their uniforms and badge.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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