The Bulloch County Board of Education recently voted 8-0 to obtain cost estimates for placing school resource officers at all 15 campuses. At their May 31 work session, board members also continued to express support for hiring a school safety coordinator.
“It’s a serious problem, and I’m passionate about doing something – I suspect we all are – because I am not willing to gamble the lives of our kids by us sitting back and not being able to make a decision,” said District 3 board member Dr. Stuart Tedders. “I’m just not.”
He had noted that the local concern picked up in response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, but that it was not the last school shooting. The Parkland massacre left 17 people dead and 17 others injured.
“Do any of the board members have any idea how many have occurred since Parkland?” Tedders asked. “I didn’t either, but there have been nine. There have been nine school shootings.”
The worst was the May 18 mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 people were killed and 13 injured. Other incidents he listed, from a March 7 shooting in Birmingham, Alabama, to the shooting outside a graduation in in Jonesboro, Georgia, also on May 18, and an incident May 25 in Noblesville, Indiana, brought the total to 14 people dead and more than 20 wounded in school shootings since Parkland.
At the May 31 meeting, the board took up school safety discussion, postponed from April 26 because of a protest over the transfer of a principal to be an assistant principal. Back at the April 12 meeting Tedders, Ph.D., a professor in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University and a parent with one child still in the school system, presented a list of five ideas for improved safety.
Before that, Superintendent Charles Wilson had held a series of four listening sessions for questions and concerns about school safety in the Portal, Southeast Bulloch and Statesboro school zones. He also heard from other parents and concerned citizens during a fifth event, the annual Speak up for Education forum.
Now, Georgia’s state government is directing some money to the schools for security equipment and building changes. Thursday, the Bulloch County Schools announced that the school system will receive $93,000 from the state as a safety grant during fiscal year 2019.
That money can be used along with funds intended for school safety projects from the Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax extension approved by Bulloch County voters last November. The school system identified about $ 2 million worth of safety-related facilities upgrades and equipment, including security cameras, security lighting, fencing, fire suppression equipment, security walls and glass, intercom systems and bells, coded entry systems and emergency radios, as part of the five-year E-SPLOST proposal.
However, neither the E-SPLOST nor this particular state grant can be used for salaries for more security personnel.
Tedders’ April 12 suggestions included hiring a safety coordinator for the school district, creating a safety advisory committee and compiling separate inventories of school employees and community members willing to volunteer in efforts to protect schools.
His fifth suggestion, that the board consider a 1-mill property tax increase dedicated to school safety, was not mentioned again during the May 31 meeting.
Not in the budget
In fact, during that meeting the board voted final approval of a 2018-19 budget, beginning July 1, that does not require a millage increase. With costs such as school bus, textbook and e-book purchases shifted to E-SPLOST, the school system has returned to a balanced budget without deficit spending for the first time in five years, while also providing a 2 percent raise for all employees.
As of last school year, four school resource officers, all certified law enforcement officers, were assigned to just six of the 15 schools. The Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office provided a deputy shared by Southeast Bulloch High School and Southeast Bulloch Middle School, another deputy who served at both Langston Chapel Middle School and Langston Chapel Elementary School, and one deputy assigned only to William James Middle School. A Statesboro Police Department officer serves at Statesboro High School.
Requests to add more resource officers were among the suggestions heard most often during Wilson’s listening sessions. Some parents and educators also talked about a need for more counseling services and other support for students’ emotional and mental health.
During the most recent board meeting, Wilson noted that school administrators heard a presentation on a “social and emotional learning” plan earlier that day.
The community listening sessions also brought suggestions for response training for teachers and for “hardening” schools with physical changes and equipment, Wilson noted. He mentioned bullet-proof glass and metal detectors as examples.
“Really, several of these issues are going to require some funding, and none of that has been included in the budget that’s being presented,” he told the board.
Chairman Mike Sparks asked how much assigning one officer to each of the 15 schools would cost. Wilson then said that the school system has “a very beneficial relationship” with the Sheriff’s Office in which they share the costs of deputies assigned as SROs. Each assigned deputy costs the school system “a little over $20,000,” Wilson said.
In March, the school system’s Chief Operations Officer Paul Webb said the cost to Bulloch County Schools was roughly $27,000 per deputy the previous school year.
BCSO and SPD
Sheriff Noel Brown has provided information for adding seven more deputies as school resource officers, Wilson said. That would allow one for each of the county’s 10 schools outside the Statesboro city limits.
However, County Manager Tom Couch in an interview this week indicated that the per-deputy costs to the school system will be higher than Wilson suggested, and the expense of adding seven is not part of the county commissioners’ 2018-19 budget, now far into its development. A story describing the county’s position on this will be published next week.
Further, four of the schools without resource officers, all of the elementary schools, are inside Statesboro’s city limits. Each Statesboro police officer added as a school resource officer could cost the school system $50,000 or more, Wilson told the board. The total cost of adding officers includes things such as their insurance coverage, training and equipment, as well as salaries.
“The relationship with the city is a little different,” Wilson said. “The cost would be more.”
So he and Statesboro Chief of Police Mike Broadhead have talked about the possibility of adding security guards instead of police officers at some schools, Wilson said.
“What I am planning on doing is proceeding in discussions with the sheriff as well as the chief of police about trying to get an SRO in every one of our schools as quickly as possible,” he said.
More cops at SHS?
Board of Education members also expressed interest in adding a second resource officer, or more, at Statesboro High School.
“Statesboro High is a massive place. ...,” said District 4 member Steve Hein, who noted that the much smaller middle schools are assigned one officer. “Statesboro High could probably use two.”
With an enrollment count of 1,600 on March 1, Statesboro High had more than twice as many students as any other school in the county system except Southeast Bulloch High, which had 961.
Sparks called two-story Statesboro High “like a small city,” and said he didn’t know if two officers would be enough. The number of officers it needs is one thing that a district safety coordinator could determine, he said.
“I agree with Dr. Tedders on the importance of a director of school safety because he could help us set our priorities,” Sparks said.
The board needs someone with current law enforcement experience in that role, he said.
Citing a desire to do something instead of just continuing to talk, Hein made the motion, seconded by Tedders, to get cost estimates by the next meeting for putting a resource officer in every school. The board meets again Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.