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Chester schools drop deputies for private guards

Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood is seething after school officials hired a private firm to replace four deputies working as school resource officers with security guards he says would not be as well trained as his officers.

Chester County Superintendent Agnes Slayman on Friday hired Defender Services of Columbia, a private contractor that provides not just security, but landscaping and janitorial services, according to the company’s website. Defender Services at one time provided security for Springs Industries plants.

The plan, which goes into effect July 1, would put a security guard on each of the district’s nine campuses, school officials said, calling that an improvement over the four deputies plus one part-time person currently working.

“This ... will give the district a highly-qualified officer on each campus all day every day,” schools spokeswoman Brooke Clinton said Friday, “with two at the Chester High/Career Center site, as well as a 12-month supervisor who will also function as a floater/sub when needed in the buildings.”

Defender Services provides officers who are licensed by the State Law Enforcement Division, she said.

Half of the school resource officers’ salaries are paid by the school district and half are paid by Chester County. School officials have asked the county to use the money it has spent on deputies’ salaries to help pay for the private security guards.

If that were to happen, the sheriff’s office could lose some or all of the four positions at a time when deputies have been battling a growing gang problem, which came to a head last year with the shooting death of Chester City Councilman Odell Williams.

Underwood has maintained for months that the sheriff’s office is understaffed and needs more officers to protect the public.

“It would plainly make our schools less safe,” Underwood said. “This decision does not put the safety and well-being of the children and teachers at Chester County schools as first priority. Those guards would have to call the police – us, my officers – if they have a problem.

“That’s the whole point. A school resource officer is a trained officer on site. He or she can handle any situation. Our officer doesn’t need to call anyone because he or she is already there.”

The decision came as a surprise to Underwood, who was not included in discussions held by county and school leaders. As a parent, Underwood said, he would consider taking his child out of a school that had no trained police officer presence.

On Monday, after a closed session, the Chester County school board authorized Slayman to secure additional officers for schools. Schools leaders on Tuesday advised county officials of their plans to hire “district-selected” officers for each school site. After July 1, they said, the schools would no longer contract with the sheriff’s office for deputies’ services.

Newly elected Chester County Supervisor Shane Stuart – who worked as a school resource officer at Lewisville High School from 1999 to 2004 – met with Slayman the next day. He was “shocked” school officials wanted to replace police officers with private guards, he said, and he disagrees with the move.

Schools with trained deputies on campus are safer than schools with security officers who may not be police officers and may not have specialized training about keeping weapons out of the hands of children or other training that resource officers receive, Stuart said.

“The training is especially crucial dealing with kids, our children,” he said.

School officials told Stuart Tuesday that they want the $101,000 the county spends on school resource officers’ salaries to help pay for new security officers, he said.

“We do not need four less deputies,” Stuart said. “At a time when the sheriff is asking for more help, it seems like we should be trying to help him.”

The 6,000-student school district and Chester County split the cost of the four officers. The sheriff’s office provides equipment, training, vehicles and other costs of having a deputy at two campuses in Chester and one each for the schools in Lewisville and Great Falls.

In the aftermath of the 2013 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, Clinton said, the school district has spent nearly $1 million on “proactive, pre-emptive measures,” including secure doors, surveillance cameras and other security measures.

The decision to use security officers instead of sheriff’s deputies is another part of that effort school leaders believe will improve overall safety, she said. School officials still need to determine how to pay for any additional costs, she said.

Details of the agreement Slayman worked out with Defender Services will be released Monday, Clinton said.

The sheriff’s office and school officials were once on the same page when it comes to protecting Chester County schools.

In February 2013, just weeks after Underwood took office, he and Slayman asked county leaders to help the schools pay to hire seven more school resource officers, which would have put a trained deputy on each campus. County leaders denied the request.

Now, two years later, Underwood said, school and county officials have decided they want no deputies in schools.

“Instead of adding deputies, now they don’t want any of my deputies,” Underwood said.

It remains unclear if the private security guards would be armed and have the authority to detain students or others on campus.

Private security guards are not required to have the extensive training that police officers must go through at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Police officers receive more than 500 hours of training, including “active shooter” training at places such as schools. Chester County’s school resource officers receive an additional 160 hours of training in how to deal with children and other situations unique to schools.

“Without question, a school is safer with a trained police officer in it than it would be with a security guard,” said Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse, who leads the sheriff’s office’s active shooter training.

Capt. Dwayne Robinson Sr., who supervises the county’s school resource officers, said just the presence of deputies – with the training and authority they carry – often prevents campus incidents.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065

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