Originally created 07/25/99

Schools to consider arming safety officers



If the decision were up to Columbia County's school safety officers, they would carry weapons.

"I think the bottom line is, we're certified police officers," said Buddy Hendry, the safety officer at Harlem High School. "It's not like we're going to be cowboys out there. We're professionals."

Currently, Columbia County has five unarmed safety officers. School board members will have to decide whether they want their school officers to carry guns and whether their officers should enforce laws. The board has formed a committee to look into school security issues, including arming officers.

"We're not and have never been a police operation," school Superintendent Tommy Price said. "It may be simple. But I want to hear, and I know our board wants to hear, what all is involved when you set up a police agency with armed policemen walking your schools."

All five of Columbia County's safety officers are certified peace officers -- maintaining the required 20 hours of training each year -- and have previous law enforcement experience. The schools also work closely with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office with patrol deputies often stopping at the schools. Though an original proposal included using sheriff's deputies, school board members have said they would rather armed officers answer to the school system.

Several principals said that although they wouldn't have considered armed officers a few years ago, school shootings such as those in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., have given them new perspective on school safety.

"You don't like to think you've got to do that," Harlem High School Principal Barry Hemphill said. "But it's a different time, a different day. We're talking about things I would have never dreamed we'd be talking about when I started in education."

Though some of the safety officers said they don't know if a situation requiring them to use their weapon would ever arise, they said being armed would serve as a deterrent and make them feel more secure when approaching suspicious vehicles or people on campus.

"We're doing things right now that in your (law enforcement) training, you're taught not to do," Lakeside High safety officer Lance Poss said.

But though Columbia County's school safety officers have never carried weapons and don't enforce laws, the school system is one of 17 in the state recognized as law enforcement agencies by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. There are 45 colleges and universities in the state that share the same status. However, the council's numbers do not include school systems that use outside law enforcement or private security.

Before Columbia County's safety officers can carry weapons, the officers would have to be sworn to enforce laws and make arrests on school property either by the school board or by the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, said Ryan Powell of the standards and training council. In McDuffie County, for example, the school system employs and pays the salary of one safety officer who is actually sworn by the Thomson Police Department.

In addition to Columbia County, there are three other local school systems that are recognized law enforcement agencies -- Richmond, Burke and Washington counties. Richmond County first introduced safety officers in its schools in 1980 with one sworn officer and one civilian director. The school system now has 33 sworn officers who have a dual role of resource officer and law enforcer. Richmond County's school officers work closely with the Richmond County Sheriff's Department, turning over some felony and misdemeanor cases.

"That's the blend you have to get," said Pete Fletcher, the school system's attorney.

What school systems have:

Aiken County:

Eight officers from outside law enforcement agencies, armed

Burke County:

Four safety officers, armed

Columbia County:

Five safety officers, unarmed

Lincoln County:

No safety officers

McDuffie County:

One safety officer and hiring a second, armed

Richmond County:

33 safety officers, armed

Washington County:

Two safety officers, armed

Peggy Ussery can be reached at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112, or ussery@augustachronicle.com.