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Police in West Virginia schools a hot topic

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local boards of education can make a significant impact on school safety, especially when it comes to recruiting police officers to patrol campus, officials say.

With major cuts to federal funding over the years, only 64 of West Virginia's more than 800 public schools have a prevention resource officer patrolling the halls. None of those are elementary schools.

About a third of those officers are locally funded, while the rest are supported by about $800,000 in federal grants that were awarded to the state in 2012, according to the West Virginia Division of Justice & Community Services.

Leslie Boggess, deputy director of the division, said the schools with PROs in the building are "the lucky ones," and since the program started 15 years ago, requests for an officer have dramatically increased while funding has decreased.

"It's safe to say that having an officer in the school is better than not having an officer there. It would be wonderful if we could have them in every school, but we don't have any control over the federal budget," Boggess said. "We recommend looking to local funds. Your local school board is always the safest place to go, but county commissions and others will probably be willing to contribute. Federal grants are continuing to decrease."

PROs are not only trained to respond to dangerous school situations, but also provide mentoring services and talk to students about issues such as underage drinking and drug abuse.

 

'Hard to gauge'

Just because only 64 of the state's police officers are certified PROs, though, doesn't necessarily mean that only 64 schools have a police presence. The number of school resource officers, whose role in schools is for security only, is "hard to gauge," Boggess said.

The state used to receive federal grants from Community Oriented Policing Services for those positions. When that money stopped coming in, some officers were maintained locally and others weren't, she said.

Only four West Virginia police officers are listed as active in the National School Resource Officers database.

"West Virginia has one of the very lowest numbers. I don't know if we have any state with a lower number of active officers," said Janet Hyatt, a representative with the NSRO, the country's largest organization dedicated to training school-based law enforcement officers.

While that could mean West Virginia has a small police presence in schools, it also could mean there are a number of SROs who haven't been properly trained through the NSRO or trained to serve in public schools at all, Hyatt said.

"There's training out there that we don't approve of," she said. "You could have many SROs in your state, [but] they just aren't registered with us."

Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Obama has called for a review of the country's school safety and gun control laws. On Friday, the National Rifle Association asked Congress to provide funding for armed security guards in every school as soon as next month.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Friday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wrote that he wants to bring the entertainment, gun and mental-health communities together to talk about preventing mass violence.

He cautioned that, if the Obama administration takes "a guns-first approach without addressing the other factors at play, we will be no closer to resolving this problem than we were in the days before the horror in Newtown."

In the op-ed, Manchin also proposed a national commission on mass violence that could conduct public hearings and would "have teeth," like the 9/11 Commission.

"Since the funding dried up . . . police have been in and out of middle schools and high schools," Boggess said. "I don't know if anyone is really keeping track of that. There may be a lot of officers in schools that aren't with our agency -- some full time, some part time. I have a strong suspicion there will be a lot more, though."

Still, Boggess knows that elementary schools aren't a priority.

"Sometimes, officers may go into elementary schools if there's time to do some sort of presentation or just to visit. So, there's some correspondence," she said, "but these programs aren't designed to be utilized in elementary schools, and they rarely are."

At the Legislature's request, the state Department of Education is to provide, by August, a consistent statewide crisis-response plan for schools that is easily accessible to emergency personnel.

Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said that while some states mandate school safety policies, local school systems could make a big difference on their own.

"You don't have to have a law passed to exercise common sense and good judgment," he said. "Education is a federal concern, a state function and a local responsibility. So the local school district determines much of what is done operationally in the schools."

The Legislature appropriated $30 million over the past three years for county school systems to implement physical safety measures, which include security cameras, card-access entrances, extra exterior doors and locking devices.

That is the best thing school systems can do, Stephens said.

"In terms of school safety, you begin with reasonable steps. You have to ask what reasonable steps can be taken and go through with them. And what has happened certainly suggests the importance of taking those steps," he said. "But, in Connecticut, the man shot through the access-control entrance.

"Even if you have all these things in place, there's no guarantee you'll prevent 100 percent of crime. There are fences that can be easy to climb."

The National School Safety Center helped train thousands of school resource officers with the COPS grants provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, but those programs "have been beaten up by the budget," Stephens said.

"They have significantly reduced. I hope they'll be reactivated, because this is a situation of how vulnerable our schools are. This is a whole new level of exposure," he said. "But local districts are revisiting their safety and security practices. It's happening all over the country."

Kanawha County schools are doing just that.

 

Kanawha school efforts

Bev Jarrett, director of safety for Kanawha County Schools, met last week with school administrators and law enforcement to revisit a variety of questions.

Do all schools have a consistent plan so that emergency personnel know what to do? Should teachers and students hide or evacuate in an intruder situation? What happens at an elementary level?

Jarrett's title was even changed to "director of safety and security" last week as a way to streamline the system. Before, security responsibilities were split among several administrators.

"In light of what happened in Connecticut, there are bound to be some changes in everyone's plan. We need to make sure something like that couldn't happen here. The very best thing is to have an armed guard in the schools," Jarrett said. "We need a better presence than we have, and it will be a budgeting issue. I'm hoping the federal government comes through with more funding."

The Charleston Police Department has vowed to increase its patrols at schools because of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.

 "We're not worried about anything, to be honest with you," Charleston police Sgt. Bobby Eggleton said at a news conference early last week. "We just want to make sure that the public out there is secure in thinking the police department is there, because we are there. We just want to have a more active presence. We're acting before we react.

"I'm sure . . . from the federal level, they will be asking us to do things," he said, "and whatever they say, we'll do. I'm sure the chief and mayor will have recommendations for us, too."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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