AIKEN - With a cup of coffee in hand, Sgt. Steve Deibel begins his workday patrolling the halls of the Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School.
"The best part of my job is hearing from parents and teachers that it gives them peace of mind," Sgt. Deibel said. "It took a half year for the students to get used to it, but now we're like a family."
In the past decade, a resource officer in uniform on school grounds has become a common sight at Aiken County schools. Safety is now as much a part of the educational environment as textbooks and teachers, and the school district is budgeting to keep resource officers in place.
Last month, after a high school student in Bemidji, Minn., shot and killed six students and two staff members before taking his own life, Sgt. Deibel gave teachers a checklist of safety reminders. More recently, a 12-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder after they talked about plans to stab and kill their teacher at Aiken Middle School with a knife, police said.
The school district has not altered any safety procedures, officials said.
"It's like a store that hires a security guard and puts in cameras. Sometimes it still gets robbed. You can't completely avoid something like that, but we can minimize our risks," Sgt. Deibel said. "We want to do everything we can to make sure a student doesn't slip through the cracks."
Sometimes pointing out that a student who disrupts class or fights could be arrested is enough to put students back on the right track, Sgt. Deibel said.
New schools are now designed with safety in mind. The new Mossy Creek Elementary School, slated to open this fall , has several wings that branch off the main building like fingers from a hand and are angled to allow a teacher to be able to monitor two hallways at once, said Bill Gallman, the deputy superintendent of Aiken County schools.
Teachers are trained to refer students to a school counselor or another staff member if they notice unusual behavior. Students might be sending warning signals in writing assignments, artwork, poor classroom attendance or a change in dress, Sgt. Deibel said.
Catherine Martin, the Aiken County 2004-05 Teacher of the Year, said teachers are urged to pay more attention to safety than when she began teaching 12 years ago.
"I think we have to," Mrs. Martin said. "I am lucky because I work at an elementary school and I have always felt safe here. But we do pay more attention to keeping doors (to classrooms) locked and looking for visitors."
Edgefield County schools have resource officers at their high school and both of their middle schools.
In Aiken County, because the state has cut $237,697 for school resource officers from the 2005-06 budget, the school district is having to pick up the slack.
"We felt it was important enough to plan this into the budget," said Aiken County Superintendent Linda Eldridge at the March 29 school board meeting. "We did not feel that we could, in good conscience, cut these positions."
Schools such as Ridge Spring-Monetta Elementary-Middle School have a resource officer who is paid for by the local police department. Some resource officers have to split their time among several schools. Most of the middle schools have to share resource officers, and Jackson Middle and New Ellenton Middle schools do not have resource officers.
New Ellenton Middle School did have a school resource officer last year, but the state grant used to fund the position ran out, said Andy Reeves, the assistant superintendent of Area 5 schools.
Staff Sgt. Chris Funk is a resource officer at Leavelle McCampbell Middle School and supervises the other five resource officers from the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.
"Times are changing, and we've got to keep these officers in the schools," Staff Sgt. Funk said.
"We're not just here to lock people up, but we deter a lot of fights and have an impact in the community around the schools."
Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aiken County schools with one resource officer:
- A.L. Corbett Middle School* (part-time; shared with Wagener Salley High School)
- Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School*
- Leavelle McCampbell Middle School*
- Midland Valley High School*
- Wagener-Salley High School* (part-time; shared with A.L. Corbett Middle School)
- Ridge Spring-Monetta High School*
- Silver Bluff High School*
- Ridge Spring-Monetta Elementary Middle School (paid for by city of Ridge Spring)
- North Augusta Middle School (part-time paid for by city of North Augusta)
- Paul Knox Middle School (part-time paid for by city of North Augusta)
- North Augusta High School (paid for by city of North Augusta)
- Aiken High School (paid for by city of Aiken)
- South Aiken High School (paid for by city of Aiken)
- Aiken Middle School **
- Kennedy Middle School **
- Schofield Middle School
*** denotes school resource officer paid for by Aiken County Sheriff's Office
** denotes one school resource officer from Aiken Department of Public Safety shared among three schools
Source: Aiken County Public Schools