COLUMBIA — Putting a police officer in every school in South Carolina is a necessary, commonsense approach to preventing shootings, according to the state’s top law enforcement officer, who also said Thursday that he opposes any proposal to arm school employees.
“I truly believe a school resource officer in all our schools is a must,” State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told a Senate committee. “If there was one thing I could do tomorrow to improve safety in our schools, school resource officers would be the No. 1 thing.”
State schools chief Mick Zais had a different take. Whether to allow a few highly trained and screened employees to carry a gun should be a local decision, the Republican superintendent said.
He said he’d support adding police officers in schools, too, and that local administrators should find the money to do that within their budgets.
“All these ideas hinge on local control,” said Zais, a retired Army brigadier general.
Senate President Pro Tem John Courson called the meeting of top law enforcement and education officers to get their opinions on school safety.
Allowing weapons on school grounds would require a change in state law. Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, has proposed legislation permitting that for employees with concealed weapon permits. He believes they could protect children if a school is attacked.
But Keel said no law enforcement official supports that idea. It would create dangerous confusion, he said.
“God forbid, if we have a shooting incident where school employees are armed and law enforcement is responding, they don’t know who’s who. When they’re confronted by armed individuals in civilian clothes, they don’t know who the bad guys are,” Keel said.
Besides, he said, teachers have enough to do without worrying about the significant training and re-training that would involve.
“Teachers are there to teach, not be security officers,” he said. “School resource officers are the best protection. It is untold how many incidents have already been prevented by mere presence of a resource officer in schools.”
Courson agreed that responding to a school shooting takes special training, noting that even though he was an expert marksman in the Marine Corps, “I would be very awkward in a school situation.”
Zais said most middle and high schools already have school resource officers. Only some elementary schools do.
The superintendent of at least one school district, Spartanburg 6, decided after the Connecticut shooting to post an off-duty deputy at each of its 10 elementary schools.
How to pay for one in every school statewide is up for debate.
Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Conway, said legislators need to act and not just talk a lot about protecting schools.
“This is a great example of where we either duck or proactively address” Keel’s recommendations, he said. “What’s the value of a life? Does our state have the will to do it? That will be the great debate. I hope we actually do something and not give lip service.
Keel said the state also must do a better job addressing mental illness, and school employees should be trained on how to identify and handle unstable students.
He said people who are involuntarily committed for mental illness in South Carolina need to be put into the National Crime Information Center to prohibit them from buying guns, as other states already do. He’s meeting with mental health and judicial officials next week about to jumpstart that effort, which may require legislation.