Originally created 08/05/98

Official tackling violence



South Carolina's lieutenant governor Tuesday yelped a loud SOS.

Only it wasn't the distress call sailors use before their ships are sinking. Instead it was a plea to save South Carolina's public schools from "drug dealers and thugs."

In light of growing schoolyard violence across the country, Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler proposed Tuesday to put uniformed police officers in every primary, middle and high school in the Palmetto state.

His plan, Safety in Our Schools, would use money provided by the 1998 Safe Schools Act, which gives districts the option to hire resource officers. If passed, the plan would impact 425 schools.

"As the parent of a daughter who just graduated from public high school and a son who will be in the fourth grade this fall, I know full well the problems our children face in school," Mr. Peeler said. "Instead of figuring algebra problems and piecing together chemistry formulas, too often children are left to figure out how to get from sixth period to seventh period in one piece. And that's wrong."

Locally, Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers are present in every Aiken County elementary school at the fifth-grade level, and every high school has access to a resource officer. But currently, there are no uniformed police on a steady basis in middle schools.

Mr. Peeler's plan would require a recurring commitment of nearly $13 million in state funds.

His plan comes on the heels of the state's latest school-crime statistics, released last month. Over the past three years, violent crime in South Carolina has dropped by almost 5 percent and murder by 14 percent. But school crimes continue to soar.

Recent figures showed 9,005 crimes reported in South Carolina schools this past year, up 21 percent from the previous year. Serious crimes, like weapons offenses and assaults, were up about 13 percent.

In Aiken County, 35 crimes were reported in the third quarter of last year: one count of aggravated assault, one arson; six breaking and entering incidents, six counts of disruptive behavior, 10 drug offenses, one for possession of a paging device, four for threatening a school official, five vandalism offenses, and one weapon offense. Neighboring Edgefield County reported 11 crimes, with the majority for larceny.

Meanwhile, the full Senate last week approved $210 million for Sen. Fritz Hollings' new Safe Schools Initiative to improve school safety. Sens. Hollings, D-S.C., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H. -- chairman of the Senate Commerce, Justice and State Appropriations Subcommittee -- are lead sponsors of the initiative.

Since last October there have been six major school shootings that killed 14 students and teachers and injured 49 others.

The Safe Schools Initiative has three components. First it provides $175 million under the Community Oriented Policing Services program to place officers in schools. Second, the legislation provides $25 million from the Juvenile At-Risk Children's program that can be used for mentoring and training centers. And third, the bill provides $10 million from the National Institute of Justice to develop more effective school security systems and safety technologies.

"The difference is our SOS Plan comes without Washington strings attached and isn't subject to the whim and caprice of a fickle federal government," Mr. Peeler said. "Make no mistake about it. Drug dealers and thugs already frequent the grounds and halls of our schools. Under my plan, a law enforcement officer will, too."