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Why armed deputies now patrol all Louisa elementary schools

LOUISA COUNTY, Va. -- Louisa County Public Schools have taken extra security measures for the 2018-2019 school year. The district has more than doubled its school resource officer force adding full-time armed deputies to every school.

Louisa is now the first district in Central Virginia to employ full-time officers in every elementary school.

Two deputies are assigned to the high school, one is assigned to the middle school, and one is stationed at each of its four elementary schools.

“They’re there to make sure our buildings are safe," said Louisa County Public Schools Superintendent Doug Straley. "They’re also there to build relationships to move throughout the building and be a part of the school culture. Not there just to guard the door.”

SROs are defined by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services as a certified law-enforcement officer hired by local law-enforcement who can provide law-enforcement and security services to public elementary and secondary schools.

“We want our atmosphere to be as safe as can be and inviting as well, which is a tight balance there but it’s something we certainly need to be doing for the safety and security of all involved that walk through our doors every day,” said Straley. “Not like a prison, not like a jail, but a safe school in which we have armed officers there but they’re part of that culture and they mingle throughout the day with our staff and students.”

“I feel a lot better sending them out the door,” parent Courtney Sherry said. “It’s reassuring to know there is somebody at the school that’s going to protect them in case the unthinkable happens.”

The district formed a "Safe Schools Task Force" following the February 14, deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, Florida. The force is comprised of law enforcement, members of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, board of supervisors, the School Board, parents, teachers, and administrators.

“We really looked at are we doing enough,” said Straley.

In past years, one deputy was assigned to the high school, one at the middle school, and one would rotate between the elementary schools. The task force made expanding the LCPS SRO force a top priority for this school year and beyond.

“I think this is a true picture of how a community working together can make things happen for all involved,” said Straley.  “As a superintendent of schools, my number one priority is to make sure my students and staff our safe.”

“Certainly, you can’t put a price tag on safety and one of the things we wanted to make sure of that we were able to do this in a way that would also remember our taxpayers who are footing the bill for this.  Our Sheriff’s Office immediately went into a creative mindset how can we make this happen for the least amount of dollars for our taxpayers and they made it happen,” said Straley.

The initial estimate to add four deputies came in at $240,000, but Louisa County Sheriff’s Office Major Donnie Lowe said he was able to hire the officers as 10-month employees which only increased his budget by $60,000.

“The Louisa Sheriff’s Office and Louisa Schools are blessed to have and maintain an excellent working relationship and shared goals. The concerted effort between the two agencies including a newly formed Safe Schools Task Force actually made a difference and as a result of this collaborative effort a school resource officer was stationed in every Louisa County School. Thinking outside the box, we were able to cut the costs of providing these new officers to less than a third of the original costs,” said Major Lowe.

“It’s not just about having officers in the schools; it’s much more than that. It’s about bonding with your community, keeping it safe and addressing topics like mental health, gangs, drugs, having a law enforcement officer that students and staff can trust and go to if they have a concern or want to report something. It’s about working with your community toward accomplishing shared goals and values that may seem impossible but are not,” he added.

Chris Hockman is one of four newly hired SROs this year. Hockman has been assigned to Jouett Elementary School.

“I was very excited that I was going to come here every day and build positive relationships with the children here at school,” said LCSO Deputy Hockman. “It’s the most rewarding thing as a parent. I love the fact that now we have someone in every elementary school that bridges that gap with the kids between the school system and law enforcement.”

“This is probably what I call the great leap forward.” Said LCSO Sergeant Robert Sarnoski.

Sarnoski is the head SRO for LCPS and has worked at Louisa County High School for nearly a decade.

“Now we got the chance to build relationships with kids from pre-kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. This is the most proactive end of any law enforcement agency that you could be with,” he added.

“I tell the kids that I am here to keep them safe and I am also here with them if they need me for anything, again building positive relationships with the children,” said Deputy Hockman.

Deputy Hockman says he has already developed a close bond with the children and they especially enjoy his daily high fives and fist bumps.

Deputy Hockman

“I hope these kids, 10 years from now can give me fist bumps and high fives and say, ‘hey Deputy Hockman, how’s it going?’”

“He’s nice to everyone and respectful,” said Jouett 4th grader Jordyn Hope.

“It’s more safe if someone breaks in. There’s a police, so we’re safe,” said Jouett 4th grader Ethan Kitchen.

Jouett Kindergarten teacher and parent Cheri Hunter says she has a new sense of security in the halls she shares with her son.

“I am very blessed that we have this opportunity to have Deputy Hockman here,” said Hunter. “It makes me feel safe to have him here my students love him. My son, he’s always felt safe coming to school, but it just makes him feel happier.”

“Out of this task force came different signage around the building, looking at our drills, and training students and staff go through, so they’re prepared if there were an incident,” said Straley.

District leaders said they waned to remain proactive and has also considered adding mental health counselors.

“This isn’t simply to say 'hey, we put school resource officers into our schools we’re safe, we’re secure, hey, let’s, let it go.'  It’s not about that,” said Straley.

“That’s just a piece of what we are doing to make sure our schools are safe and secure.”

Superintendent Doug Straley

“This is just one more way of them proving they are ahead of the game to prevent the unthinkable before it’s too late,” said Sherry.

District leaders said they have not received any negative feedback on the security changes.

“Things have changed in society where we have to change with the times and provide that safety for the kids,” said Deputy Hockman.

“As a superintendent of schools, every parent sends their kids to school to return home at the end of the day safely, and it’s my job to make sure that happens,” said Straley.

CBS 6 reached out to area school systems inquiring about SRO staffing at the primary and secondary levels, whether full-time SRO staffing across their district was being considered and whether they have safe schools task forces in place.

Hanover County Public Schools

“We do of course have several SROs in our schools along with DARE officers,” said, Hanover County Public Schools spokesperson Chris Whitley. “We have had a longstanding and strong partnership with the sheriff’s office, and we are grateful for tremendous support. Each day, we work hand-in-hand with them to remain vigilant and as prepared as possible at all of our twenty-five schools. We simply could not do it without them,” he added.

“With regard to a school safety “task force,” we’ve had a division safety committee in place for nearly two decades (since 2000). Our safety and security coordinator leads the committee that includes representatives from the Hanover Sheriff’s Office, Hanover Fire-EMS, Ashland Police, and other local partners. His committee regularly meets to evaluate and discuss a variety of safety-related issues to ensure we continuously employ best practices, from processes and procedures to facility enhancements,” Whitley added.

“We have sworn law enforcement officers that work for the sheriff’s office that are assigned to all of our high schools and middle schools. We currently have additional deputies that cover three elementary schools a piece that “float” between each school throughout the day,” said Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson James Cooper. “However, the deputies that cover the elementary schools are supplemented by our patrol deputies to ensure that a deputy is at each elementary school for a large portion of the day.”

Henrico County Public Schools

Henrico County school spokesperson Andy Jenks said that the district has “at least one dedicated SRO (a sworn Henrico police officer) in all middle and high schools."

"Elementary schools will be covered by feeder pattern, meaning the same SRO may have an assignment of more than one elementary school,” he added.

Richmond Public Schools

Richmond Public Schools spokesperson Kenita Bowers said, “RPS has SROs funded through the Richmond Police Department. Those SROs are either assigned to or rotate between our middle schools and high schools. The ability to place an SRO at every school would be dependent upon funding and staffing availability from RPD.”

Chesterfield Public Schools

Chesterfield Public Schools spokesperson Shawn Smith said, “We have SROs in our middle and high schools. Our school division announced in February a school safety task force: http://mychesterfieldschools.com/chesterfield-county-school-board-announces-creation-of-school-safety-task-force/.  The website for our task force is: http://mychesterfieldschools.com/school-board/school-safety-task-force/.

School Resource Officer and School Security Officer Incentive Grant Program

In April, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services offered state funds through the School Resource Officer/Security Officer Incentive Grant Program.  According to its website it’s “to establish new and continue existing School Resource Officer (SRO) positions in local law enforcement agencies, and School Security Officer (SSO) positions in local school divisions for fiscal year 2018/2019.

A primary goal of this grant program is to establish, enhance, and continue the partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and local school divisions.”

"Two-thirds of schools (1,279, 65%) had safety/security personnel working at their school. Of these, 701 schools had full time security personnel, 494 had part time, and 81 had both full and part time,” according to the VDCJS. (Page 8)

“The 2017 Virginia School Safety Audit Report,” showed full-time SROs were in 3% of elementary schools, 68% of middle schools and 79% of high schools in the commonwealth.

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