Armed Columbia County school safety officers will be patrolling campuses this year.
School board members voted 3-1 during their Tuesday meeting to arm the school system's five safety officers. But the change won't happen overnight. Superintendent Tommy Price said it could be a month before equipment and uniforms are distributed.
"I regret that climate in public schools across the nation is such that we're considering this," Mr. Price said before making the recommendation.
Board members Mildred Blackburn, Regina Buccafusco and Roxanne Whitaker voted for the measure, and board member Debbi Brooks voted against it. Chairman Ray Hicks did not vote but said he would support arming officers since the majority of the board approved it.
Mrs. Brooks said she doesn't think the majority of the public wants armed officers in schools or that they will deter violence.
The board also unanimously approve a policies and procedures manual that would organize the safety officers as a law enforcement unit and details use of force and how the unit will operate.
The approvals came after months of discussions on the procedures for safety officers should they be armed. But some attending Tuesday's board meeting said they did not think this latest safety measure is necessary based on the current level of violence or would be a deterrent.
"I don't think we've reached that point yet," said Steve Brown, one of two parents who spoke against arming safety officers.
Mr. Brown said the school system should look more at empowering administrators when it comes to discipline and communicating with parents.
But safety officers said they were happy to see the approval.
"To me it's more of a concrete deterrent," said Lance Poss, a safety officer at Lakeside High School. "I feel more comfortable in doing my job to the fullest I'm trained to do it."
And officers said they don't believe a uniform and gun will change how pupils relate to them.
"There's still going to be a trust there," Harlem High safety officer Buddy Hendry said.
Mr. Price said he will bring a recommendation for a safety department director to the board's Jan. 25 meeting. Then, a meeting will be set with safety officers to go over the manual and the school system's expectations.
In other business, the school board gave tentative approval on the new Greenbrier Middle School attendance zone. The new school, set to open in the fall, will pull pupils from Columbia Middle and Riverside Middle to relieve overcrowding. A final vote on the new zone will be Jan. 25.
Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.