As Officer Brad Wilson follows an orderly line of children out the front door of St. Andrews School of Math and Science, a boy stops to hold the door open for him. "Hello, police," he says politely, then skips away to catch up with the rest of his class.
Wilson is going to become a familiar sight at St. Andrews this school year. As a member of Cluster 5 on the Charleston Police Department's newly formed School Security Response Team, Wilson is responsible for patrolling the halls of seven West Ashley elementary schools, private and public. Formed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of December 2012, the new team of 19 officers is trained to expect and prevent the worst in 35 elementary schools across the city.
The Sandy Hook shooting, which claimed 26 lives at a school in Newtown, Conn., not only rekindled a long-simmering gun debate but prompted city governments and school districts across the country to reassess elementary school security measures. In North Charleston, Mayor Keith Summey almost immediately started pushing for the placement of a full-time officer in each of the city's 21 public elementary schools, a controversial $2 million measure that City Council eventually voted in favor of. In Charleston, after lengthy public debate, City Council voted 7-6 in February for a plan that would hire three officers for each of six "clusters," or geographical school patrol areas. The officers move from one school to another within their cluster throughout the school day, as opposed to school resource officers at middle and high schools who stick to one school. A 19th officer was hired as a supervisor.
"We want them to be predictably unpredictable," Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen says. "Looking at previous active shooter situations, many of them have actually planned their attacks in advance. They knew exactly where the school resource officer was. They knew when they came to school, when they left school. What we're trying to create is an environment where nobody can have that type of knowledge base."
The School Security Response Team is being paid for by a city property tax increase that also funded the construction and staffing of two new fire stations. The tax hike, which added $35 to the bill on a home worth $250,000, is expected to generate $3.48 million per year. Chief Mullen estimates that the hiring of the 19 officers cost $800,000 in up-front expenses and equipment costs. The 19 officers all have previous police experience, from SWAT training to surveillance to community building to investigative work, according to Mullen.
Wilson, who has worked at the department for 13 years, previously worked traffic patrol and accident reconstruction in West Ashley. For his new position, Wilson went through a week-long session of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, a program that was started in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. He says topics covered in the class included dealing with explosive-rigged doors and breaching barricaded schools via rooftop. "I remember the first day we went into training, when we were done, our lieutenant looked at us and said, 'Y'all look like you've just been hit by a train.' And we said, 'That's a lot of information. I would have never thought about it that way.'"
Wilson and the other officers' new job started two weeks before the Charleston County School District academic year began, working with administrators to suggest revisions to security plans. During the school year, the officers will also help teachers to run lockdown drills.
Chief Mullen says part of the officers' job is to build relationships with parents, children, and faculty so that they can find out early about "rumors floating around."
"It's anything that's going to create a threat to that school — and we're talking about elementary schools, so hopefully they're not going to get too many drug tips," Mullen says. "Anything that impacts the safety of that school, these officers are going to respond to. Now, if it's an incident where there's a theft at the school or something like that, that would probably be handled by the beat officer that works in that area."
Charleston County schools have also been beefing up security measures in recent years, from Raptor ID scanners that provide instant background checks on visitors to hurricane-proof windows on new buildings that, in addition to being able to withstand strong winds, are difficult to shatter with gunshots.
Miller says that after going through his training, he looks at school buildings differently than he did before, constantly assessing threat levels and vulnerabilities. And the stark realities of his job hit home on days like last Wednesday, when a 20-year-old man entered an elementary school in Decatur, Ga., with an assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition, took hostages, and staged a standoff with police before surrendering.
"When I go to work every day, I kiss my wife and my kids goodbye knowing I may not come home. I've chosen to do this. This is what I do," Wilson says. "When I send my kids to school, I expect them to come home. And it's tragic, but we're sitting here doing this because that's not the case anymore."