Train Unemployed Vets as School Security Officers, S.C. Lawmaker Proposes

May 20, 2013

Investigative Reports

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SchoolkidsThe mass killings in December at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School has forced lawmakers in South Carolina and across the nation to confront glaring security gaps at public schools in their home states.

S.C. Rep. Liston Barfield, R-Horry, has offered a possible solution for the Palmetto State that he contends would be cheaper and faster compared to other security proposals: Let school districts hire unemployed veterans as security offers after they receive a two-week training course at the S.C Criminal Justice Academy.

“We have a lot of veterans that come home and are unemployed,” Barfield told The Nerve last week. “They already have a lot of military training. I wanted to create job production as well as save the school district money. We’re reducing requirements, which the school district would have to pay for.”

But his bill (H. 3601), which allows school security officers to receive a state “Class IV” certification – the lowest law-enforcement certification level – after two weeks of training, ran into stiff opposition from public safety officials and lawmakers during a House Education and Public Works subcommittee hearing last week.

The K-12 Education Subcommittee decided Wednesday to table the bill, dubbed the “School Protection Officer Act.” Given that there are just three weeks left in this year’s regular legislative session, the legislation likely wouldn’t have any chance of possible passage at the earliest until next year.

Barfield told The Nerve that if he were to reintroduce the bill, he would first want to reach a consensus with law enforcement.

The bill would require school resource-officer candidates to receive training in a number of areas, including shoot/don’t-shoot situations, rapid response, defusing volatile situations, first- responder first aid, and identifying and containing potential and occurring threats.

“That’s an awful lot to fit into two weeks,” said Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Beaufort and the subcommittee chairman, said during Wednesday’s hearing.

Patrick, a former U.S. Secret Service agent and owner of a security consulting firm, noted that Barfield’s bill was the third piece of school-security legislation that the subcommittee had heard this year. H. 3601 was preceded by legislation that would expand the existing school-resource officer program statewide and another bill that would require every school to employ a full-time school psychologist to identify children in need of mental health counseling.

“All well-intentioned efforts,” said Patrick, “but at the end of the day are we really addressing what the core of the problem is, and are these the best approaches to solving that problem?”

Mark Keel, the State Law Enforcement Division chief, voiced his opposition to Barfield’s bill during Wednesday’s hearing.

“We strongly believe that those officers in our schools, protecting our schools, should be fully certified officers,” Keel told the subcommittee. “I don’t think that this bill accomplishes the amount of training that should be given to an officer that is protecting our children.”

Patrick agreed.

“The proficiency needed to respond to these active shooter situations is not something that can be taught in two weeks,” he said. “We need to be more proactive in the way we respond to these situations. I think the School Resource Officer program is a great program. I don’t know that it necessarily fully addresses the problems we see in our schools relative to targeted violence.”

“We can do that with a very low cost by training stakeholders already existing in the school to identify threats, to assess that threat and to manage that threat,” Patrick continued. “Teachers can be trained to identify behaviors of individuals that are of concern.”

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Hubert Harrell, the Criminal Justice Academy’s director, explained that the differences between the classes of certification are based on the amount of training that is required. Class I officers – the typical full-time officers employed by police departments – receive 12 weeks of training.

The other state certification levels are as follows, according to Harrell:

  • Class II officers are jailers or those who work in detention settings.
  • Class III officers are limited-duty officers who work security at a courthouse or other public buildings. Those buildings are the limit of their arrest authority.
  • Class IV officers are tactical communication officers; Barfield’s bill would add school security officers to this category

“Two weeks is barely enough to teach a person,” Harrell told the subcommittee at Wednesday’s hearing. “I can’t even imagine the liability concerned with somebody that only has two weeks of training that’s carrying a firearm in a school.”

“Class I officers, in my opinion, is the way to go,” he continued. “We train them hard; we talk to them about active shooters; and they get all kinds of scenario training.”

The projected fiscal impact of Barfield’s bill has yet to be determined by the Office of State Budget, but the taxpayer costs likely would be in the millions. Harrell estimated the cost at about $2 million annually when asked by a subcommittee member, though he didn’t provide specifics.

The S.C. Law Enforcement Training Council, which governs the Criminal Justice Academy and is made up of an eleven-member board including the state attorney general, SLED chief and the S.C. Department of Corrections director, would determine the guidelines for the two-week training program under Barfield’s bill.

“I can’t tell them how to legislate,” Harrell told The Nerve. “All I can do is advise them. Everybody would like to get out of this as cheaply as possible. But we have learned from experience, from the things that have happened around the country, the officer has to be savvy. He has to have experience.”

Asked about other methods to protect schools, Harrell said there are several steps the state can take to prevent tragedies such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“Making it more difficult to get to (school) building is one,” Harrell said. “All of our schools are on campus. Anybody can walk in and off the campus. Having a policeman on planning boards to look at (school) plans and see that certain safety factors are built in.”

“They’re going to all cost money, but we have to decide what to spend our money on,” he added.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.