The district has spent millions since 2016 to make Georgetown County school facilities as safe as possible, said Alan Walters, the district’s executive director for safety and risk management, and those efforts are ongoing.
The district’s Board of Education also makes safety a priority, as shown June 7 when the board added drills to a proposed policy that already surpassed the number of drills required by the state.
The state law calls for one of each drill per semester, lowered in 2021 from two drills per semester. However, the board’s new policy calls for three active shooter drills for the year, a monthly fire drill and a severe weather/earthquake drill each semester.
“The state changed the law, lowering the required number of drills,” Alan Walters, the district’s executive director for safety and risk management said. “Our board members wanted to do more than what the law required, especially with the fire drills.”
The initial active shooter drill — which will be held within the first 10 days of school — will be one of three Georgetown County School District officials will conduct in the 2022-23 school year, which is one more drill than required by state law.
The change to the state policy was a response to concerns over the numerous drills eating into classroom time, Walters said. But board members wanted to have more than the minimum number of drills, especially when it came to active shooters and fire drills.
“We wanted to have one fire drill a month to get the students in the mode of safety,” said Michael Cafaro, at-large board member. “Without practice, there’s no hope for perfection, and we want to develop that muscle memory for safety.”
Cafaro said during his nearly 20 years as a school administrator there have always been regular fire drills in the school system.
Active shooter drills and school safety have come to the forefront once again following the Uvalde, Texas, but Walters points out that South Carolina has seen two incidents in the past year — the Tanglewood Middle School shooting in Greenville County in May and the Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School in Orangeburg County in August 2021.
Safety is an aspect the district has invested quite a bit of time and money into over the past several years.
“GCSD considers the safety of our schools and district to be our top priority,” Bethany Giles, assistant superintendent for academics and student services, stated in an email.
“When students and staff feel safe and secure, they are more comfortable in their schools. This produces a learning environment where students succeed and have more opportunities to grow academically, emotionally and socially,” Giles said.
The current trend in funding school safety in South Carolina can be traced back to a $165 million bond referendum that was passed in 2016, Walters said.
“About $2 million of that was designated for security projects, the bulk of which went to entirely replacing the school and bus camera systems,” he said. “There was also about $4.8 million for replacing each school’s fire alarm system.”
In the Georgetown County School District, this year 19 of the district’s 20 schools — Howard Adult Center is excluded — will have dedicated school resource officers for the first time, if the positions can be filled by the time school starts.
“The costs of the additional SRO’s that are being hired or have been hired is through state grant funding,” Walters said. “We received notice from the state this past Friday (June 10) that all of the grant positions have been renewed for 2022-23, but that won’t be in the budget since the money goes directly to the law enforcement agencies.”
Getting the district fully staffed with SROs has been a years-long process. Walters said when it comes to safety, there is no substitute for a trained, certified resource officer on every campus.
“The money spent on SRO’s has changed as we have added more grant positions,” Walters said. “This year we will have 11 grant positions funded by the state at approximately $740,000. The remaining eight are funded by GCSD at a little under $500,000.”
The district also uses off-duty officers for security at ball games and extracurricular activities, which have varied greatly year-to-year due to COVID, Walters said, estimating that expense at $200,000.
“The compensation packages for me and my staff, which includes safety specialists and crossing guards is around $400,000,” he said, estimating the district’s annual safety personnel costs at around $1.8 million.
On June 28, the Board of Education will approve the 2022-23 general fund budget. Walters said his department isn’t seeking any increase in funding this year.
“I’m not asking for new personnel for my department, so there won’t be anything new there. I am working on two security projects that would involve upgrades to our facilities, however those would be paid for with capital funds, which is a different pot of money from the budget up for approval,” Walters said.
Walters said he did not want to get specific about the upcoming projects or costs, but said it would be a six-figure investment.
One sizeable safety expenditure has been on efforts to make the schools as impregnable as possible, including reinforced vestibules at each school designed to keep a shooter from getting into the building.
The vestibules feature ballistic panels in the walls and bulletproof glass as well as electronic locks. Each school building was different, some dating back to the 1950s, so tailoring the vestibules to the buildings was tricky, he said.
Walters said the vestibule project took place over a couple of years which overlapped into three fiscal years.
“It was paid for with capital funds, not the general fund budget,” Walters said. “The cost of that project was around $1.2 million.”
The average cost per vestibule was around $60,000, he said. “That is definitely an average, as the costs varied greatly depending on the age and size of the school.”
Board of Education Chairman Arthur Lance Jr. said Georgetown School District is able to afford the safety expenditures because over the years, board members have been good stewards of the district’s finances.
“We’re not a broke district,” Lance said. “This board has done really well in terms of managing the district’s funds.”
The district also utilizes metal detectors, and Walters said there is new technology using Artificial Intelligence to scan for weapons and contraband that he would like to see the district employ one day.
Walters said the district’s superintendent and board have made this multi-million-dollar annual investment to keep the Georgetown schools safe.
Cafaro said while active shooter drills are important, most school districts are more likely to have a fire than a shooting. During his career, he recalled a student setting a fire in bathroom that resulted in the building being evacuated.
“We need to practice for all contingencies, and have policies and procedures in place,” Cafaro said.
“If you look at the Seven Correlates of Effective Schools by Lawrence Lezotte, you’ll see the first one is having a safe and orderly environment,” he said. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have much. In fact, you have chaos.”