LEE COUNTY: Officials foresee smooth transition for school resource officer program

Aug. 08, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Political squabbles arose over changing the command of Lee County Schools student resource officers from the schools to the Lee County Sheriff's Office, but those on the district's 16 campuses might not notice much difference.

"We have talked about trying to keep things stable and move forward, and everyone's always looking to improve as well," Superintendent Andy Bryan said, noting that as of Wednesday, no major changes were planned to the way the schools handled security before.

The schools had controlled the officers, known as SROs, since 1993, when the district formed what was then only the second school police agency in North Carolina. But a week ago, that police force was disbanded by a new state law and replaced by a new department under the command of Sheriff Tracy Carter — whose own law enforcement career began as a Lee County SRO.

"It's going to be a top priority for us," Carter said. "... Several of the top administrators here have been SROs before. We take the safety of our schools very seriously."

The Lee County Board of Education was forced to fire all seven of its resource officers after the change took effect Aug. 1. Carter said anyone who applied to get his or her job back was rehired, although not all of them applied. Regardless, he said, every officer patrolling local public school campuses this fall will have prior experience in law enforcement, as well as specialized SRO training.

The number of officers will also increase. Previously, seven officers split their time between all 16 schools in the district. This year, Carter said, there will be seven officers split between the high schools and middle schools, plus two dedicated solely to the elementary schools.

He said he's working with Bryan to apply for a grant that would allow two more elementary school officers to be hired, and he's interested in starting a shadowing program for veteran SROs to mentor their fellow officers.

"He and I are off to a good start," Carter said of Bryan. "We'll be meeting with some of the principals next week."

Bryan said students, parents and employees will have more details, such as who to call to report crimes or tips, once that information becomes available. Most schools in the county start in about two-and-a-half weeks on Aug. 26.

"We're still working out specifics, but I have great faith in Sheriff Carter," he said. "We both have the same goal, and that's to make sure we protect and support our students and staff."

As for actually implementing the switch, Chief Deputy Randall Butler — who is second-in-command at the sheriff's office and will be helping supervise the new SRO program — said he's not anticipating any problems.

"The transition's going to be pretty smooth," said Butler, who is also a former Lee County SRO. "I don't have anything negative to say about the program or how it was run."

Butler addressed some of the fears various school officials have voiced in the past, like stories from other districts of officers who refused to listen to principals or investigate certain issues. He said the SROs will be attentive to the concerns of school employees as long as doing so doesn't contradict their training or instructions.

"Their guidance and their direction will come from the sheriff's office as far as law enforcement matters are concerned," he said. "They will be talking with the principals and the teachers about specific things, like, 'Hey, watch near the cafeteria at this time,' or things like that. But no, law enforcement officers do not take orders from civilians."

Having deputies as SROs could allow the sheriff's office to call them up for other matters whenever school isn't in session. Butler said the change also might make it easier to solve or avert some crimes by removing the inter-agency red tape that arose when the schools and the sheriff's office tried to share information in the past.

Dr. Lynn Smith, chairman of the school board, referenced the district's recently announced 20 percent drop in on-campus investigations last year and said that while he still doesn't think the change needed to be made, he and the rest of the board will do what they can to support the officers and those they protect.

"I do feel like, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it' — but we're fixing it anyway," Smith said. "... But I have every confidence in the superintendent and the sheriff that they'll make it work."