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Camden schools seek second officer

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

CAMDEN — The school resource officer for the Camden County Schools made a pitch for a second school-based deputy this week, suggesting that splitting his time between four schools doesn’t provide enough of a buffer against the risk of school-based violence. 

Mike Lawrence, speaking at a joint meeting Monday of the Camden Board of Education and Camden Board of Commissioners, said his recommendation would be to hire a second school resource officer for Grandy Primary and Camden Intermediate schools. While he would continue to work at Camden High School, he and the second SRO would split the school policing responsibilities at Camden Middle School, Lawrence said.

Several county officials seemed skeptical of the proposal, however.

Commissioner Ross Munro said the county doesn’t have the funding to hire a second school resource officer. He also noted that less than two months ago, Camden Sheriff Tony Perry advised commissioners he did not need additional deputies. Perry made the statement while requesting commissioners eliminate an unfilled deputy position in the department and use the unspent funds giving current employees raises.

Perry said Tuesday he continues to believe he has enough officers to police Camden. He said he would support the Camden schools if they want an additional SRO and have a way to pay for it. However, he indicated he could not justify an additional school officer in his sheriff’s budget.

The schools already have important security features such as locked doors that require people to identify themselves before they are buzzed in, Perry noted.

During his presentation to commissioners and the school board, Lawrence outlined his current responsibilities. They include everything from planning and coordinating “active shooter drills” and other emergency readiness exercises to educating students about drug abuse prevention and conflict resolution to patrolling school facilities and grounds. He also pointed out that the SRO is the first line of defense in emergencies such as shootings.

Lawrence noted that a mass shooting could happen anywhere, pointing out that they typically have occurred in communities similar to Camden — small, rural, where most people know each other.

“If you look at where school shootings happen, they happen right here,” Lawrence said.

After showing a video of the Columbine school shooting, Lawrence remarked “there’s kids like this in the school system,” referring to students who closely match the profile of the shooters from Columbine and other mass shootings.

In some instances Camden students who might be a threat have been identified and referred for counseling, Lawrence said. He said that through social media and other means he’s been able to identify threats against specific students and defuse the situation before anything bad happened.

Lawrence said he recently became aware that a couple of students had put together what he called a “kill list.” One of the students seemed to think the matter was a joke, he said. Those kinds of situations require close monitoring, he said.

Perry said Tuesday that the school had handled the “kill list” incident in-house. His office did not get involved and no criminal charges were filed, he said.

Lawrence told the boards on Monday that monitoring social media is an important way to identify potential threats and that he gets help from both students and parents.

Munro said Lawrence probably does need help monitoring students’ social media posts. But he insisted the county doesn’t have the $60,000 needed to hire an additional school resource officer.

Lawrence said grants are available that could help with funding the second SRO.

Perry said Tuesday that he’s willing to apply for a grant to fund an additional SRO, but he cautioned that grant funding for such positions has become hard to come by. He said Camden’s low crime rate likely would make it more difficult to get such a grant.

At Monday’s meeting, Munro asked Lawrence about using volunteers in the schools, with the county paying for their training. He suggested one approach might be to recruit from among retired law enforcement officers or military personnel who already have relevant experience.

Lawrence said there is a potential liability with using volunteers in an SRO-type role, however.

As an alternative, Munro said that volunteers who aren’t carrying guns but are serving as an extra set of eyes and ears could help as a “middle ground.”

That prompted school board member Chris Wilson to suggest that the county was content to wait until tragedy struck before doing anything about the need for a second SRO.

As Wilson and Munro briefly tried to talk over one another, board Chairman Clayton Riggs said he thought it was important to remember that two elected boards were sitting around the table and that another elected official — the sheriff — told the county commissioners he didn’t need another deputy.

Commissioner Randy Kraniak said he appreciates Lawrence’s commitment. He also said he thought it was worth looking at having volunteers to help keep an eye on things.

“They don’t have to carry a gun — just be your eyeballs,” Kraniak said.

Stephanie Humphries, the county finance officer, said she would like staff from the county, the schools and the sheriff’s office to meet and see what kind of proposal they can come up with.

Lawrence said that whatever the county does he would keep giving the job everything he has. He said nearly everyone in the room has a family member in one of the schools. There are 2,000 people in the schools on a daily basis who need to be protected, he said.

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