Spotsylvania and Caroline recently won state grants to help cover the cost of an armed school resource officer at one elementary school in each county.
Colonial Beach is also set to receive a grant for an SRO—a sworn deputy or police officer assigned to a school full time—at the town’s 222-student high school.
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services recently announced that they are among 33 localities to receive a total of $1.2 million in grants for resource officers. The Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office plans to use its $44,000 grant to place an SRO at Lee Hill Elementary School, while the Caroline Sheriff’s Office will put its $32,770 award toward a deputy at Bowling Green Elementary School.
Most school systems throughout the Fredericksburg region already have SROs at middle and high schools, but the mass shooting Feb. 14 at a Parkland, Fla., high school renewed a push for law enforcement protection for younger students. Authorities say the SROs are needed to deal with external and internal threats.
Caroline Sheriff Tony Lippa said in a news release that every county school will have an SRO, thanks to the grant.
"Receiving this grant award will enable the [Sheriff's Office] to continue making Caroline County a safer place for our children to attend school, and it will provide peace of mind and a sense of security to the parents and the students,” he stated.
Caroline's grant application calls schools "soft targets for active shooters" because children and adults cannot protect themselves. Several recent incidents at Bowling Green Elementary show the need for an SRO, according to the Sheriff's Office.
In April, for instance, two men were seen near the school's playground with what appeared to be a pistol and a shotgun. Someone called 911, and students at the playground were rushed into a locked room before deputies got there about 12 minutes after the men were spotted.
"The amount of damage that could have been done in twelve minutes is unfathomable," the Sheriff's Office wrote in its application. The deputies found the men, but the grant application does not say whether they were arrested or actually had guns.
In Spotsylvania, an elementary school’s “population and location” factor into SRO placements, Capt. Charles Carey said.
The 666-student Lee Hill Elementary off U.S. 17 is a diverse school where nearly half of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. The nearest SRO is nearly 6 miles away at Massaponax High, which the grant application describes as the "busiest school within the county."
Lee Hill Elementary requested assistance from the Sheriff's Office 74 times between June 2016 and May 2017 for a variety of incidents that include disorderly conduct, drugs and suspicious people.
The Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office applied for three other grants for elementary school SROs, but the state rejected them. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider a proposal Tuesday to spend $141,000 this fiscal year on three additional SROs not covered by grants. Those SROs would be hired January 2019 at the earliest, but it is unclear where they would be stationed.
Spotsylvania placed its first elementary SRO at Courtland Elementary School in 2014, less than two years after a gunman killed 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The county had three elementary school resource officers at the end of last school year, but hopes to put SROs in the remaining 14 elementary schools over the next year. Carey declined to identify the schools without SROs because “the safety of our children is paramount, and I wouldn’t want someone getting horrible ideas.”
The Colonial Beach Police Department emphasized issues within the town's high school when explaining the need for an SRO there. Last school year, 28 students needed mental health evaluations, an increase over the previous year, according to the town's grant application. The school had at least 69 altercations last year, and the police department listed gang activity as a contributor.
Colonial Beach High has a metal detector and security cameras, but the absence of an officer has forced teachers to intervene in what the grant application called "violent situations."
"Gang-affiliated students are seen influencing other students during the school day and encouraging delinquent behavior that has led to increased violence," the department wrote.