Varied visions for school safety

Published 1:07 am Saturday, September 29, 2018

Suffolk Public Schools declined a proposal from the Sheriff’s Office that would have provided more qualified security at a lower cost than the safety monitors the division hired, according to multiple sources.

Suffolk Public Schools received $550,559 in additional funds from the state, and the school division decided to use it to enhance safety. This additional money came from public education funding from Virginia’s 2018-2020 state budget that was passed in early June.

The school division presented plans to the School Board during its June 14 meeting that showed them allocating the funds, if appropriated, to provide salary and benefits for 24 full-time safety monitors.

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These funds were appropriated by the City Council at the Aug. 1 meeting.

During that meeting, Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney appeared before the council to answer questions regarding the allocation of funds, and Councilman Mike Duman presented the idea of using the Sheriff’s Office as security rather than hiring less qualified individuals as safety monitors.

“My thinking is that the sheriff’s personnel already have a presence in your schools. They are also well trained and, for the most part, retired law enforcement officers,” Duman said during the meeting. “They could provide more of a resource in an event having that caliber of an individual rather than hiring someone new. I can’t imagine how qualified they could be.”

Duman was not the first person to suggest the idea; originally, the suggestion came from within the school’s own administration.

Prior to these meetings, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Rice had approached Sheriff E.C. Harris about potentially using his deputies to provide security within the elementary schools in Suffolk.

“I said that I could do it, but not with the staff we have now. I would have to hire additional people,” Harris said. “The conversation was only a couple of minutes and I didn’t hear more about it, but I started doing work on a proposal just in case.”

During the City Council meeting, Whitney said he would be willing to take the idea to the School Board as long as he felt he could get the commitment from the Sheriff’s Department to have them within the schools for a full school day.

“While we appreciate the department coming into our schools, they are not there during arrival and dismissal times,” Whitney said during the meeting. “I don’t think they could make the commitment now.”

Harris, following the City Council meeting, showed Whitney they were willing to make the commitment after seeing the money had been appropriated to the school division.

“The City Council meeting occurred, and I watched it the next day. I saw where this thing came up,” Harris said in a phone interview. “I gave them a proposal, but at that time they had already hired safety monitors.”

Despite telling City Council he would talk to the School Board if a commitment was shown by the Sheriff’s Office, Whitney and the school division had already begun hiring safety monitors.

The school division also failed to wait until the money was appropriated from the city before hiring their staff. The first safety monitor was hired June 25, 2018, according to spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw.

Whitney submitted a letter dated July 9, 2018, to the city manager asking for the appropriation of funds — 13 days after the division had made its first hire.

No motion or information was provided publicly to the School Board until its most recent meeting on Sept. 20, but Whitney did not use the opportunity for discussion on merits of either safety monitors or the Sheriff’s Department. Rather, Whitney defended the use of safety monitors due to cost and the time frame to train additional deputies.

“The two items that were most concerning if we were to move in this direction is that it would cost more to have deputies, but I do recognize when we talk about school safety that can’t be the primary reason not to do something,” Whitney said at the meeting. “The other issue is that it would take four months to train additional deputies.”

According to Harris, the proposal he presented to Whitney would have cost approximately $425,000 for the first year, because they would have to uniform and equip the deputies. The cost would be less in future years.

This estimate even for the first year is more than $100,000 less than the extra money the school received from the state. The funds were not earmarked by the state for safety and could have been used for any needs.

If the school division would have moved forward with the Sheriff’s Office, the funds from the state would have paid their salaries. The additional deputies would be considered part-time employees, and they would not receive paid benefits from the school division or the city.

Harris said it would not have taken four months for training, because he hires those who already have substantial law enforcement or military experience.

“Folks I would hire would be the same I hire to work for me,” Harris said. “They have the maturity and decision-making level that you can’t touch anywhere else. That’s the important part.”

Unlike trained law enforcement officers, the new safety monitors received only three total days of training, two of which came from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ Center for School and Campus Safety, according to a presentation from Rice at the Sept. 20 school board meeting.

The safety monitors cover topics like problem-solving strategies, incident response, federal and state laws, due process, bullying, intervention strategy and student aggression.

The level of training the new employees received is a concern for Harris as well as School Board member Linda Bouchard.

“They have hired good people, but they are not armed or certified law enforcement,” Harris said.

“I think it is totally inadequate the training they are supposedly receiving. They wear T-shirts and don’t carry weapons,” Bouchard said in a phone interview. “I think it all depends on one’s goal for safety in the school, and I think I have a different idea of safety in the schools than the administration.”

Currently, the role of the safety monitor is to manage and operate the door buzzer system, maintain the visitor’s log and make rounds around the school occasionally, according to Rice’s presentation on Sept. 20.

“I think they should be protected with security with guns that are properly trained,” Bouchard said.

While high schools and middle schools have the Suffolk Police Department acting as school resource officers, adding more firearms is a concern for others.

“I’m concerned about too many people with guns in schools, and I know that is one thing that the Sheriff’s Department is proposing,” said School Board member David Mitnick.

But Mitnick agreed the current safety monitors could use additional training on top of their current three days of training.

The decision has not deterred Harris and the Sheriff’s Office. Harris said he still believes there is a need for law enforcement in schools.

“I personally believe that law enforcement needs to be in there,” Harris said. “We will keep doing what we can in schools, and I’ll try again.”