WMBF Investigates Horry County Schools' decision to replace SROs with security officers

(Source: WMBF News)
(Source: WMBF News)

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Kids in Horry County go back to school on August 23, and some of them are going to notice a big difference when they get there.

Armed security officers from US Security Associates will replace Horry County Police Department school resource officers on 18 campuses.

Those schools are: Carolina Forest High, Green Sea Floyds High, North Myrtle Beach High, Socastee High, Saint James High, Horry County Education Center, Academy for Tech and Academics, Academy for Arts, Science and Tech, Black Water Middle, Ocean Bay Middle, Forestbrook Middle, Loris Middle, North Myrtle Beach Middle, Saint James Middle, Aynor Middle, and three new schools this year: Saint James Intermediate, Socastee Middle and Ten Oaks Middle.

Training Differences

At a bare minimum, an armed security officer in the Palmetto State undergoes 10 hours of SLED required training.

Dig Deeper: Scroll to the bottom of this page to see PDFs documents which show the SLED training requirements.

Certified security training officers go to one of three technical colleges in the state to learn the curriculum and bring it back to their respective companies to teach the trainees.

By state law, employment through a security company, and registration with SLED, security officers are given certain law enforcement authority. However, it's limited.

Private security officers are not authorized to conduct criminal investigations. According to SLED, they can only act as first responders to help someone who may be hurt, collect evidence, and detain suspects.

Horry County School Board Chairman Joe Defeo said back in June, he looked forward to working with a private security company.

"There is a slight advantage to having private security because they work directly for us," Defeo said. "They never leave the school unless we allow them to."

Post orders give the board that control. They outline things like what a security officer can do, how they should do it, the people they should interact with, and emergency information.

David Beaty, the district's coordinator of school safety and security, says security officers will have arresting power, too.

However, that's also limited to the school property the security officers are hired to protect.

Lastly, they are able to carry a weapon, but they have to undergo SLED approved firearms qualifications.

During a school board meeting on June 19, we heard from representatives with USSA.

They detailed 40 more hours of training they do to make sure their security officers will be ready to work in school environments.

When it comes to firearms qualifications, SLED requires a score of 80 for a trainee to pass, but US Security Associates requires a score of 90.

Despite all of that, some say the training for security officers is still not enough.

Director of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Jackie Swindler says it takes more to be prepared to handle any situation that could happen in a school setting.

"An armed security person is there to respond to some confrontation...a single task but important task," Swindler said. "An SRO is more involved. They are there for security, but also there to handle situations, investigate, they know how to defuse, can work simple crimes, probably get property back…a whole lot more than just being an armed security person."

In comparison, a school resource officer undergoes hundreds of hours of training, just in basic law enforcement. They undergo 488.25 hours over the course of 12 weeks.

Beaty argues though not everything law enforcement officers learn during their time at the academy is needed to work in schools.

"I was taught to investigate accidents. That would have nothing to do with working in a K-12 environment," Beaty said. "I think it's also important to point out that we're hiring these school security officers for a very finite reason to serve in these schools. Their primary duty is to protect that campus and its occupants."

But Swindler disagrees.

"Why would that not be a benefit to have someone that knows how to handle all types of situations because a school is just a little mini-city," Swindler said. "Everything from arguments to thefts to assaults, so why wouldn't you want them trained to handle all types of situations and how to handle it immediately and thoroughly."

Law enforcement officers in South Carolina take courses on gangs, harassment and stalking, child abuse, mental illness, sexual assault, and domestic violence, just to name a few. Swindler says it makes officers in our state well-rounded to know these types of things and able to respond to any kind of incident.

"If you simply put someone there with limited training and limited duty and ability and equipment, then you've got limited results," Swindler said.

On top of the basic skills law enforcement officers learn at the academy, many school resource officers in the state also go through another 75.5 hours of academy training focused solely on school-related issues.

Those courses include education on drug abuse, working with students with disabilities, working with LGBT students, and social media challenges.

"A lot of tasks to do, not simply there for security purposes...which is important to help holistic approach for the students to make sure their well-being is safe and secure, interacting and talking to them, recognize students are in need of other services…a great benefit to have that trained individual in the school," Swindler said.

Swindler believes that benefit also extends to the community and the local police department or sheriff's office.

"The SRO could tell the detective division that they are hearing there is an event, hearing that there is something brewing or a trend or that this drug is popular or this game that is popular or a crime is happening...having that network is very important," Swindler said.

Horry County Schools

Horry County Police have been providing SROs for area schools since 1998, but US Security Associates also has a history with Horry County Schools. They've been working together for at least ten years, supplying unarmed security until this school year.

Horry County schools isn't alone in making the change from school resource officers to private security. Other school districts in the state have made similar moves in recent years.

Back in June though, Horry County's school board said the decision for our local schools came down to money.

Working with US Security Associates will allow the school district to bring in 18 security officers for about a million dollars less than what they would have to pay for HCPD SROs this school year.

Swindler believes school safety isn't something districts can afford to cut back on in today's time.

"I think having a security guard is a good thing if that's all you can do, and that's better than nothing because they are there for security," Swindler said. "But I think there's more to that function than just simply guarding this or that."

Swindler hopes safety and security in schools is a focus for districts across the state.

"It's a vulnerable target and precious commodities with your children and seems to be very popular with people who want to get attention, so I would be very, very serious about putting that high on my priority that I did all that I possibly could to make that area secure."

Beaty agreed.

"I think everybody would agree that the status quo would have been preferable, but that wasn't allowed to happen," Beaty said. "I can tell you that the school district takes student and campus safety extremely serious. It is our paramount concern."

Horry County School Board Member John Poston argued, back in June, that it's a team effort to keep students safe.

"Safety and security in our schools isn't dependent on a single guard or a single officer or a single person. Safety and security in our schools is a team effort and starts with a vision from this board and direction from this board to our administration," Poston said. "It's carried out by our administrators, faculty, our teachers, and even our students. It gets better if we engage with good policies and procedures. I think we do a good job of that in Horry County Schools."

During that school board meeting in June, we also learned about the kind of people US Security Associates would be hiring to work in your student's school. Representatives said they wanted to recruit people who had either military or law enforcement experience.

"I think there's a lot of mis-perceptions going around out there," Beaty said. "I can tell you that the security company was clear from the very beginning that they weren't just going to hire somebody off the streets. They were going to be seeking applicants that were former or retired police officers or honorably discharged veterans. They have a stringent process to identify these candidates and hire them."

While USSA said they have decades of experience securing educational institutions, they would not provide a list of school districts in the state or around the country they have been contracted to serve.

Instead, they provided this statement to WMBF News:

U.S. Security Associates, Inc. is a nationwide provider of security services and solutions.  USSA provides excellent security services in every sector, including landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the 9/11 Memorial, distribution centers, office space, schools, retail locations, movie studios, residential complexes, and financial centers.

We also asked Horry County school leaders what they were looking for in a security officer.

"I don't know how to create the perfect person to work in the school environment, but obviously we would want somebody that has a great deal of maturity and a great deal of patience, somebody that is adaptive within a K-12 environment because it's different. There's no ifs, ands, and buts about it," Beaty said.

Chester County Experience

Watch the first part of report on Chester County's experience with armed guards at schools here:

WMBF News looked at another county in our state that made a similar move, Chester County.

We found that back in 2015, the school board there decided to get rid of its four Chester County Sheriff's Office SROs, and instead, they hired armed security guards through a company called Defender Services.

The move didn't last long though, and it created a lot of tension between the school board, the sheriff's office and county leaders.

"It's obvious that the school board and the superintendent don't care about the safety of our children," said Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood.

That statement was made back in 2015 when the Chester County School Board decided to cut his deputies out of class and replace them with private armed security guards.

"I really don't care what they think because obviously they stupid," Underwood continued.

He said then he believed the decision to take his four deputies out of Chester County schools was all about control. However, the school board told our sister station out of Charlotte, the choice came down to money.

"In recent years, we have all seen that safety issues are not only confined to high schools; students of all ages are at risk daily. We have thus tasked the Superintendent Dr. Agnes Slayman to efficiently use district funds to place an officer on each school campus," a statement to WMBF News partner WBTV said.

"I think that's the biggest mistake they're going to make, and it's going to come back to haunt them," one Chester County parent told WBTV.

Parents spoke out about the decision and really started asking questions about the move to private security after an incident at a school in the upstate. It involved the same company that would soon be in charge of safety in Chester County, Defender Services.

A student at an elementary school was able to take a security officer's gun from his holster.

The change in Chester County only lasted for one school year before SROs were brought back into the three high schools, while armed security guards remained in the middle and elementary schools.

Some in the Chester County Sheriff's Office believe that move didn't go far enough though.

"We feel like SROs need to be in every school because of what they can offer and the level of protection they can give the schools," Chester County Chief Deputy Robert Sprouse told WMBF News. "A security guard is a security guard. Whatever happens, happens, and that incident has to be reported to law enforcement anyway."

In Chester County, security guards can't direct traffic, they can't handle situations off school grounds, and they weren't hired to work security for the schools' sporting events, leaving the sheriff's office to fill in those holes the security company couldn't.

Sprouse believes students are not as safe in their classes without law enforcement inside the schools.

"Taking us out of the schools basically limits us in our ability to protect them," Sprouse said. "It's a big deal because these children are very important to us, and we want to make sure they get the protection they need."

That protection under Defender Services' control came into question earlier this year when a lawsuit was filed against Chester County Schools, Defender Services, and the security officer involved.

"During this altercation, the private security officer tries to intervene and does so, as we see it and as some of the evidence in the case shows, in an inappropriate manner," said attorney Andrew Kunz.

The lawsuit claims the security guard was trying to break up a fight and grabbed one of the students around the waist, pulled him up and off his feet, and then, slammed the student to the ground, ultimately breaking the student's arm.

"When you put someone into a school setting, where they are going to be faced with fights, you have to give them all the tools and techniques necessary where people aren't going to get hurt," Kunz said. "We feel like it could have been avoided and should have been avoided. That could have prevented this injury."

Kunz argues the security officer in this case had inadequate training compared to a school resource officer.

"The end goal of this whole thing is to make sure that private security organizations, or Defenders Services itself, realizes that we can't just have these folks go through minimal training, and then put them on a campus protecting a school load of children," Kunz said. "You have to have the county and you have to have the people in charge making sure they are doing their due diligence because it's a dangerous proposition to leave students in the hands of people that aren't trained to the fullest."

That was also the fear of the Chester County Sheriff back in 2015.

"My son will not be going to Chester County Schools, and I'm telling every parent, if you're not out there raising hell about the safety of your child then something is wrong," Underwood said.

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Dig Deeper: Read the PDFs below to see the primary basic and primary plus SLED training that USSA security guards undergo:

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