Sheriff says county schools’ security ‘robust’

Mark Johnston

A week after 26 students and teachers were fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, a man walked into Strasburg’s Sandy Hook Elementary School carrying a 2-by-4 board with the words “high powered rifle” written on both sides.

The stunt in Strasburg made national headlines and, whether, in response to that or to the shooting in Connecticut, Shenandoah County moved aggressively to increase its school security systems.

Across the county, schools added locked entries with buzz-in video systems, placed cameras around the school buildings and increased staff of school resource officers.

School resource officers are armed Sheriff’s Office deputies stationed in schools who patrol campus and build relationships with the students. Previously, the county had four officers who would float between the schools, but now every public school has a designated officer.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter said that the county has nine full-time school resource officers, one part-time, and one full-time supervisor. He said their salaries and benefits were initially paid for by the Sheriff Office’s trove of asset forfeiture funds, but the cost has slowly been shifting to the county.

Timothy Carter

The idea of hiring retired law enforcement officers to patrol the schools has been gaining traction as a cost-effective preventative for school shootings in response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, sent a letter to Shenandoah County Superintendent Mark Johnston Feb. 20 suggesting just that.

“We should put retired law enforcement officers to work as armed security protecting our schools,” Gilbert’s letter read. “This is a cost-effective alternative or supplement to full-time law enforcement officers in our schools. I would challenge you to explore this option of providing additional security in our schools.”

Johnston said Tuesday he has “no further plans” to increase security measures at Shenandoah County schools in the next fiscal year. He said that, because building good relations with the community is such a vital part of being a school resource officer, hiring volunteer or part-time retirees “who may or may not be available at certain times” would be a “bit more challenging.”

Johnston also ruled out implementing metal detectors in the county’s public schools. He said that each metal detector needs to be manned by a paid employee for it to be effective, and since some schools have as many as 44 doors and the detectors would do nothing to protect students on buses, the idea is not practical.

Carter said the only budget request the Sheriff’s Office will be making for the school resource officer program in the upcoming fiscal year is an increase in overtime pay.

“I think we’ve got a decent system with regards to the resources that we put towards school safety, and we continually try to improve that system, whether it be staffing or training or facility improvements,” Carter said. He added that he believes the county schools’ security is “robust.”

Gilbert’s letter also referenced a state grant that helps schools pay for security equipment and installation costs. Johnston said that Shenandoah County already routinely applies for this grant, but the results have been meager: $100,000 in 2016, and $25,000 last year.

Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-McLean, joined in the conversation Feb. 22, calling for increased funding for school resource officers.

“School resource officers are an important part of the solution to stopping school violence,” Comstock said in a statement. “Our veterans often make up the population that serves in these important roles in our schools.”

Jeff Marschner, her deputy chief of staff, added detail to Comstock’s call to action in an email to the Northern Virginia Daily: “The Congresswoman is working with the appropriators for more robust funding for school safety that will be more than the $200 million for the DOJ COPS Program from FY2017 that oversees the SRO program.”

Colton Manich, Strasburg High School’s school resource officer, has served in the role for four years. Even though he’s always on guard for possible threats and holds regular interventions with concerning students, he sees building positive relationships as the most crucial component of his job.

“Gaining that trust with the kids, both me trusting them, them trusting myself … Just being a person to them. Somebody they can come to for advice, guidance, things of that nature,” Manich said.

“If there are kids that are struggling in class, or they just need a mental break or something like that, I’ll take them down to one of the gyms that’s unoccupied and we’ll shoot baskets or throw a football, something like that,” he added. “We’ll talk and just build that relationship.”

These positive student-police relations aren’t exclusive to full-time employees, Manich said. He noted that Triplett Tech’s school resource officer, a part-time officer, “builds just as much of a relationship as a full-time (officer).”