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Kindergarten Cops: In Charleston, S.C., Some Hall Monitors Have Guns

April 8, 2014
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Kindergarten Cops: In Charleston, S.C., Some Hall Monitors Have Guns
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In an era of mass shootings, a South Carolina city is hoping that armed police officers in elementary schools will keep their kids safer.

Mark Rosborg beams as he bounds from classroom to classroom at the Mason Preparatory School in Charleston, S.C. A year ago, Rosborg was a narcotics officer working the nightshift, staking out dark corners on the city’s east side. Today, his beat involves patrolling hallways decorated with colorful finger paintings. He pauses to look at one of the drawings on the wall: a kid in a purple shirt with the word YOLO written across it — You Only Live Once. Putting armed guards in primary schools was virtually unheard of even a decade ago, but growing concern for kids’ safety led the city to make the controversial move.

Rosborg and his partner, Neil Sneath, are patrolling the school together. The officers notice an open door to a second-grade classroom and head over. The kids call out in unison, “Hi, Officer Mark!” as Rosborg approaches. One curious student observes Rosborg’s utility belt. “Do you have pepper spray — yes, you do — and a gun and a Taser?” the boy asks.

“All of the above,” says Rosborg.

Rosborg and Sneath are among the 19 armed and highly trained roving police officers on the Charleston Police Department’s (CPD) School Security Response Team, whose task is to safeguard the 35 elementary schools, both public and private, within the city limits. The new squad, formed in direct response to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 26 people dead, is the first of its kind in the nation specifically protecting elementary schools against gun violence — a pilot program for the country.

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Most schools in America have some kind of security guard or school resource officer who provides a pretense of safety. Schools in Baltimore, Los Angeles and Miami use armed officers; those in Boston and New York City schools have no weapons. Some smaller towns — like Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Simpsonville, S.C. — simply let police officers use a spare desk at elementary schools to do their paperwork. It puts a cop in a school for a few hours a day at no cost to the city. Charleston’s program, which launched in September 2013, is much more radical. What really makes it unique is its randomness: At any given time, up to three specially trained officers may be at any school in the city, but you never know who or where.

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The tactic is modeled after that of the counterterrorism Hercules Teams in New York City — elite, heavily armed police details that descend unannounced on crowded hotspots around the city to intimidate bad guys and disrupt potential terrorist plots. Likewise, the Charleston squad is armed and expertly trained, and their movements are unplanned. The officers don’t decide ahead of time what order they’ll visit the schools. They might stay for 10 minutes or 45; they may visit the same school twice. The more unpredictable they are, the more they’ll interfere with a potential school shooter’s plans. If officers in any given school happen to encounter a person with a gun — which hasn’t happened yet  — other officers on the school beat can arrive on the scene in under a minute, guns drawn and acting like members of a SWAT unit (because some of them were).

Rosborg and Sneath stroll the perimeters of Mason Prep, surveying the nearby roads and alleyways. Two lines of children heading to recess march by, gawking at the two policemen, twice their height. Rosborg walks toward a pair of exit doors to check that they’re locked — a shooter could easily enter through unsecured doors or over a fence or through a window. He notes that most schools in Charleston have hurricane-ready glass, which isn’t bulletproof but is about as close as you can get. Older schools also have the benefit of walls made of cinder blocks, which are bulletproof; newer schools typically use drywall.

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But if a potential shooter were to scale an unguarded fence or enter a school another way undetected, the city’s nearly million-dollar plan could be ineffective. The school response team can’t be everywhere at once. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, killed 26 people in under five minutes, firing on average one shot every two seconds. However, the random, roving nature of Charleston’s squad is likely to deter a person with a gun from barging in in the first place, says David Keene, the former president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which, in the wake of Sandy Hook, called for putting armed guards and teachers in American schools. “The problem with a nation of several hundred million people is there are evil and crazy people,” he says. “What you want to do is minimize that something like that can happen. And you can take reasonable steps to minimize it.”

At the outset, the idea of a school response team didn’t seem all that reasonable to some Charleston parents and school administrators. They opposed the plan, on the grounds that it would create a “police state” and instill more fear than safety. The city council eventually approved the program, but narrowly, in a 7 to 6 vote in February of last year — not least because of its expense: It cost $800,000 to hire 19 new officers to replace those selected for the team and to purchase new cars and equipment; along with the weapons on their belts, each officer on the schools beat drives a brand-new cruiser. When asked if he thought the police program was worth it, however, Brendan O’Shea, the headmaster of Mason Prep, reflects on the nation’s recent mass shootings and says, “Unfortunately, I’d say at this day and time, we had to do something.”

Fortunately, there hasn’t been any gun violence in Charleston schools since the program started. But emergencies do happen. One Friday late last summer, Rosborg was called to Memminger Elementary School, where an 8-year-old boy was threatening to stab his teacher with scissors. The staff called the officers’ cellphones — they don’t go through 911 — and the police arrived in under a minute, restrained the kid and waited until his mother showed up to take him home.

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Rosborg has never shot anyone. But other members of the team, two of whom are women, have seen a lot of action. Eight of the 19 officers came from the city’s SWAT team. A handful of others worked in special investigations and surveillance, and others in community action teams. “Having these officers that are used to being really tactically oriented, in high-risk type situations, keeps the level of intensity constantly moving forward,” says Gregory Mullen, chief of the CPD. “They bring a higher level of training that can be cross-pollinated.”

Since Columbine in 1999, more than 150 people have been killed in school shootings in the United States. A 16-year-old shot and killed five high school students, a teacher and a security guard in Minnesota in 2005, using his grandfather’s police pistols and shotgun. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho used two semiautomatic handguns to murder 32 people at Virginia Tech (in 2011, two more students were shot and killed at the school). In 2008, a 27-year-old former student at Northern Illinois University murdered five people in a classroom with a shotgun. Last summer, a man with a semiautomatic rifle shot and killed five people at Santa Monica College before he was gunned down by the police.

After the Newtown shooting, in which Adam Lanza used a semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle, the country lurched into another gun-control debate. President Obama promised to lead the charge on changing gun laws but failed to overcome the gun lobby’s influence on Congress. The NRA called for more armed staff in American schools. In some Western and Southern states, hundreds of teachers lined up to be trained to handle firearms.

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Eventually the blaze died down and things returned to normal: a country mostly unprepared to prevent random shootings and unwilling to talk about the issue until another tragedy comes along (like the mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., in September 2013). It’s clear that the fate of gun-control laws lies in the hands of local governments, especially city councils. The Charleston program does — initially — appear to thread the partisan needle smoothly. It puts an armed, professionally trained officer in hallways, but doesn’t cost as much as hiring a full-time officer for every school.

It’s impossible to gauge whether the program is working. Last February, before the program launched, a 28-year-old woman brought a gun to Ashley Hall, the city’s only prep school for girls, pointed it at the school’s director and another English teacher, and pulled the trigger. No bullets were fired — the gun was locked. The woman, Alice Boland, has a history of mental illness but was nonetheless allowed to buy a gun the week before (Boland had previously threatened to assassinate President George W. Bush). If she had known how to use the gun, the school’s perfectly manicured quad would have become a crime scene in a matter of seconds. Would the presence of a police officer on campus have deterred Boland? Has it deterred other would-be shooters? It’s hard to say.

What Police Chief Mullen can say is that his department’s plan is likely to function best in dense urban areas. In Charleston, a 150-square-mile area packed with 125,000 people, the elementary schools in each cluster are just a short drive away, in some cases as close as one block. The experimental program is meant to be a model for other cities, but Mullen says he wants to “make sure the bugs are worked out” before he has any conversations about bringing the program to a national level.

At the Buist Academy for Advanced Studies, a futuristic magnet school in Charleston with a second-floor gym court that “floats” on springs to silence the thuds of stomping feet, Rosborg stops in a spacious, glass-walled atrium to check in with the assistant principal, Brian Smith. The officers on the school response team catch up with the school staff at each visit; the police department promised to work closely with each school to meet their specific needs, and they assured school officials that they wouldn’t intrude beyond what they were comfortable with.

“Everything going well?” Rosborg asks.

“Yeah, yeah,” Smith says. “You guys see our fence going up?”

“Yeah,” Rosborg says, peering through the floor-to-ceiling windows. “You and Memminger putting up the same fences.” Those fences — thick, white walls about 8 feet tall — are new security measures. The bell rings, and students stream in from recess. “Whoa. Police,” one kid says, as Rosborg stares ahead stoically. Another student stops in his tracks and sizes up the officer. “Whooaaaa,” he says. “Nice.” As Rosborg enters the gym, a child shouts to his classmates: “Be good because the police is here!”

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