Originally created 08/31/97

Aiken schools seeing drop in crime figures



AIKEN -- Campus crime in South Carolina may be on the rise, but Aiken County's numbers continue on a downward slide.

A third-quarter report on school crimes released by the Attorney General's Office showed a slight increase in incidents reported statewide for a total of 1,929 - a statistically irrelevant difference over last year's figures, said Attorney General Charlie Condon.

Such crimes include robbery, aggravated assault, breaking and entering, kidnapping, disturbing school and possessing a paging device.

But figures from Aiken County have significantly declined, decreasing by 31 fewer incidents last year, for a total of 45 during the third quarter, which ended in January.

"We have widely publicized that we have zero tolerance for drugs, weapons and fighting," said Deputy Superintendent William Gallman.

For instance, if a student is caught with a firearm or illegal drugs, he is recommended for permanent expulsion, he said. Likewise, if a student is caught fighting, he is arrested.

The presence of resource officers at each of Aiken County's seven high schools has also been a deterrent, Mr. Gallman said.

Sixteen of the 45 incidents were drug-related. But school officials are quick to point out that the majority involved prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

In some cases, students got in trouble for not reporting to school officials about medication they brought to school, officials said.

"Students are finally realizing that the school district and the community are not going to tolerate crime," said Lee Anderson, a resource officer at Aiken High School. "They've realized that they either have to conform or they're out. There's no gray area."

According to the report, Aiken County school crimes included burglary, disturbing school, kidnapping, violation of liquor law, possessing a paging device, nonviolent sex offenses, stolen property, vandalism, and weapon offenses.

"I have not been privy to the recent data. However, the school board and the administration are sending out a strong message that we want to create a safe and orderly school environment," said school Superintendent Linda Eldridge.

During the second quarter of the 1996-1997 school year, a total of 1,904 campus crimes were reported statewide.

But the latest report indicates that the state has much work to do, Mr. Condon said. Included in the statistics were 248 drug offenses, 200 weapons offenses, 106 cases of burglary or breaking and entering, 129 thefts, 78 threats to school officials and 172 instances of aggravated assault.

"These are extremely serious offenses in the adult community and they are doubly disturbing when they occur in our schools," the attorney general said.

Mr. Condon said he hoped to see a substantial reduction in such incidents as a result of legislation passed in the last session of the South Carolina General Assembly.

Among other provisions, the law increased the penalty for assaulting school personnel and also lets authorities under certain circumstances to put a student who has violated the law in an appropriate detention center.

"At last we have laws with teeth in them," Mr. Condon said.

Edgefield and McCormick counties didn't submit statistics for the report. Barnwell County reported only four crimes: two aggravated assaults, violation of liquor law and vandalism.

In an effort to curb the growing problem of juvenile delinquency in Aiken County, Gov. David Beasley recently awarded a $28,168 grant to help develop programs among children, their parents and local law enforcement.

"The best solutions to our problems are always found at the dinner table, not at a government conference table," Mr. Beasley said.

The funds will be used by the Aiken Department of Public Safety to develop a mentor program for young girls at risk of heading for serious trouble with the law.

"These grants will help showcase law-enforcement officers in a different light - as members of the community who care and who are involved and truly work to solve problems," the governor said.