Getting more school resource officers and security in schools has been touted as a solution to the issue of school safety in the weeks following the Newtown, Conn. shooting.
But St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer said Tuesday in a meeting of the newly-formed Schools, Mental Health And Emergency Services Task Forc that having a school resource officer at schools won't eliminate the threat of a shooter at a school.
He said it may deter someone from going to the school if they knew an officer was on duty, however, he pointed out that Columbine had an SRO on duty when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.
School Resource Officers were one of serveral topics discussed by the committee of 14 police officers and school officials on Tuesday.
The task force was formed by St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann in December following the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
While the task force has no legislative powers—it can't force any school to do anything—the goal for Tuesday's meeting was simply start the dialogue and share ideas about how to make sure schools are safe.
Read more about how St. Charles Schools are addressing safety.
Schools Stress Importance of School Resource Officers
St. Peters Police Officer Patrick Fitzgerald, an SRO at Francis Howell North told the task force that SROs were created to introduce school-aged students to police in situations that don't involve handcuffs. He said the position has allowed him to interact with students in positive situations.
As an SRO, Fitzgerald said he's dealt with every crime imaginable, except for murder or an active shooter. He told the task force that if it happens in society, it happens in school.
St. Peters Police Chief Tom Bishop said the introduction of SROs has been one of the best things the police department has done. He said it results in fewer trips to schools and has helped police the schools.
A parent at the meeting wondered why if SROs worked in high schools, funding couldn't be routed to put an officer at every school. Bishop said in high school, the officer is still acting like an officer—breaking up fights, dealing with drugs and things like that.
As the students get younger, it becomes a different job, a security job. Bishop said that in his opinion a security job wasn't the best use of law enforcement.
St. Charles County Sheriff's Department Captain Dave Todd said the odds of an active shooter are actually less than the odds of a tornado hitting the school. Todd said he reviewed the current procedures for the schools in the area and found them to be solid—he was particularly fond of the lockout procedure. He said the lockdown plans are better than an SRO at eliminating an active shooter because a lockdown helps keep things in an orderly fashion.
Todd and others stressed that, while they want things to be safe, schools are places for kid's first.
"If I was in control, I'd treat every place like a presidential visit, but you can't make a school into a fortress," Todd said.
Schools Work to Address Mental Health Issues
Another big emphasis at the meeting was mental health. Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Bernard DuBray, who was named chairman of the task force, said the easiest solution for school safety would be to simply arm staff members, but a longer-term solution has to be tackling mental health.
He said Zumwalt has young kids already showing signs of serious mental illness and that to really get to the heart of problem, more mental health funds are needed.
Katrina Harper with Crider Health Center said funding was a big issues. She said people are willing serve, and schools are ready to received the help, but oftern the desire to serve exceeds reality of funding. She said mental health needed to be made a priority.
Task force member and President and Chief Executive Officer of Crider Center Laura Heebner said eliminating the stigma associated with mental health issues is a big step that needs to be taken. She said parents who have sick kids with a high temperature will immediately take them to the doctor however, they don't do the same when the kid exhibits signs of a mental illness. She stressed that both are illnesses that need to addressed.
The task force is accepting public comment in writing. Concerned citizens may leave your comments with staff at the task force meeting, provide it by email to Kelley Gibbs at email@example.com, fax it to 636.949.7521 addressed to the Task Force or send comments by United States Mail to: 100 N. Third Street, Suite 318, St. Charles, MO 63301.
All comments will be shared with the task force. Comments should focus on information that would be of benefit to the task force generally.
The next scheduled meeting of the task force, the last of two on the schedule, is set for Jan. 22.