Sunday, April 30, 2023

Oconee County Sheriff James Hale Responds To Request To Put Deputies In Oconee County Schools

***Elaborates On Comments At Oconee GOP Meeting***

Oconee County Sheriff James Hale is not in favor of putting deputies in Oconee County Schools.

He does not rule out changing that position in the future, but he does not believe the current situation in Oconee County Schools warrants inclusion of a security officer.

Hale said that the decision to insert a deputy into each of the soon to be 12 Oconee County Schools would cost about $2.7 million, and he also said it would be necessary to recruit and train officers for that assignment, and that would take time.

Hale also said that the response time for a deputy in the schools would not necessarily be shorter than it would be for an officer outside the schools given the way the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office currently patrols around the schools.

Hale articulated his position in comments he made before the Oconee County Republican Party last week and before the Board of Education on Aug. 1 of last year.

Neither of those presentations was recorded, and Hale restated his position in an interview after the Republic Party presentation on April 24.

Citizen Presentations To School Board

At the April 17 meeting of the Board of Education, four parents asked the Board to place school safety officers in each of Oconee County Schools’ 12 schools.

Sheriff James Hale
Official Photo

At present, Oconee County Schools has 11 schools, but the Dove Creek Middle School will open in August.

“We must have armed law enforcement on site anytime children are present,” Chris Nelson, the first of those speakers, told the Board.

None of the four speakers made reference to two recent incidents in which guns were discovered in a car on each of the high school campuses, but Hale did speak of those in the comments after the Republic Party meeting.

He referred specifically to two entries on the Sheriff’s Facebook page in March.

Facebook Entries

According to an entry on that Facebook page on March 14, “a student reported to school administrators that another student had two firearms in their vehicle.”

“We were immediately notified, and we secured the weapons and removed them from campus,” the report continues.

On March 20, the Sheriff reported on his Facebook page that “Earlier today at North Oconee High School, school administrators were notified that a student had a firearm in their vehicle.”

“We were immediately notified and we secured the weapon and removed it from campus,” according to the report.

The Board of Education held a special executive session on March 21 “to review an appeal from a Student Disciplinary Tribunal, Hearing Officer, or Panel.”

It went into executive session at the end of its March 17 meeting for that same purpose.

The Board has refused to provide any additional information on the incidents leading to those hearings or of the outcomes.

The agenda for the Board of Education meeting on Monday also includes an entry for Student Disciplinary Hearing.

What Hale Said

I received a very brief verbal summary of the general comments that Hale made at the Republican Party meeting on Monday night (April 24) from someone who was in attendance.

The Oconee County Republican Party does not allow either audio or video recording of its meetings, and it does not live stream them. I was not in attendance at the meeting.

I contacted Hale by email on Tuesday (April 25), and he and I talked by telephone Wednesday (April 26).

I told Hale I was recording our conversation for note taking purposes, and I have transcribed the comments Hale made.

“I felt like I was pretty clear at the Board of Education meeting when I spoke,” Hale said, referring to the Aug. 1, 2022 meeting of the Board.

“School resource officers are not new to us here,” he continued. “It is a constant conversation that we’ve had between the Sheriff’s Office and the School Board. Every year we discuss them.”

How To Decide If Security Officer Needed

“A lot of people base school resource officers on the statistics, based on the call volumes at the schools themselves with things that are happening at schools that would cause us to actually take that manpower and use it for that,” Hale said.

“Currently, the stats just don’t support having an actual deputy at the schools every day,” he continued. “But what we are trying to do is use other techniques and other tactics to have a law enforcement presence around the schools as often as we can.”

“We think that that’s the most fiscally responsible way to use our resources and not go whole hog,” he said. “Even if we had 12 positions for just the Oconee County School system schools, that would cost somewhere around $2.7 million.”

“First of all, where’s that money going to come from?” he said. “It is going to come from us as the taxpayers.”

“And it is also you have to find the right person to do that job,” Hale said. “That’s difficult to do as well.”

“So even if we were to go into having school resource officers, we would not be able to just start from the very beginning with 12,” he said. “We would have to start with maybe two or three. And then they would be responsible for X number of schools. So they wouldn’t be on campus all of the time anyway.”

Alternative Strategy

“So what we would try to do is what we are doing currently,” Hale said. “Just using the resources we have.”

“The county is split up into six different zones,” Hale said. “And out of the 11 current Oconee County School System schools, with 12 coming online in the fall, and then our three private schools that we have, based on what we have tried to do is there is a deputy assigned to each one of those six zones every day.”

“During the school hours, those deputies are responsible for those schools,” he said.

“So they do spend a good amount of time on the school campus and around the schools for what we would consider within, in my words, we consider them being within striking distance of the schools.”

No Record

Hale said later in the telephone conversation that he has referred people to the video of his Aug. 1 presentation to the Board, since, he said, he presented the information about security officers at that meeting.

Screen Shot
Sheriff Office Facebook Page

He said he was not aware that the video record does not exist.

At the Aug. 1, 2022, work session of the Board of Education, Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff introduced Sheriff Hale and invited him to address the Board on school security as the school year got underway.

Before Hale spoke, the video ended abruptly. The Board of Education does not live stream its meeting, so there also was no remote recording.

After Hale spoke, the Board discussed and then adopted the millage rate for the current year. Citizens had protested the proposed millage rate in a hearing before that Board meeting. (That part of the meeting also was not recorded.)

The official minutes of the meeting do not include any reference to resource officers in the schools, though Hale said he discussed them at that time.

“Sheriff Hale informed the group that patrol zones have been updated so that officers can respond to any school quickly and efficiently,” the minutes report.

“The Board thanked Sheriff Hale and his officers for their partnership, then asked pertinent questions about his comments,” according to the minutes. “Sheriff Hale answered those questions,” the minutes add.

Hale’s Summary Of Aug. 1 Comments

Board of Education Chair Kim Argo “asked me if we needed resource offices,” Hale said, “and I told her, I’m paraphrasing when I say this, but I started out by saying you know you can’t put a price tag on our kids in the schools.”

“But it is our highest priority at the Sheriff’s Office,” Hale continued. “I told her...that I didn’t think that was the best use of our taxpayers money and the budget and the manpower that we have right now to have a deputy in every school.”

“But it is a constant conversation that we do have on an annual basis with the school system as far as, hey, do you think we are at that point?” Hale said.

“I don’t know that that may change within the next few years,” Hale said. “I did say that part, and pretty much said that hey, we’ve got a plan to put that in place as soon as the School Board says they think we’re ready to go to it or as soon as we find the stats that say we need it. That’s what we do.”

Hale said there are multiple reasons schools have a security officer on campus, “but one is the reasons is they’re breaking up fights every day or they have an extensive drug problem in the school. Or they have a gang problem in the school. Of they have things like that, which the Oconee School System does not have.”

“We do a lot of other things in the schools that people don’t see all the time,” he said. “We’re not doing a good job of messaging or promoting what it is we are doing.”

“There is always somebody nearby,” Hale said. “They may not be standing at the front door.”

“But in actuality in these active shooter situations,” Hale said, “most of the people that commit these crimes are suicidal people in the first place. The law enforcement presence is not necessarily a deterrent.”

Active Shooter Training

Hale, who is in his first term as Sheriff, said he has been involved with school safety issue for the Sheriff’s Office since 2001.

Included has been active shooter training and working with the Board of Education to improve “some of the facilities,” including working “to harden our schools a little bit better.”

I told Hale that the speakers at the Board of Education meeting on April 17 said they wanted security officer in the schools so that response time in the case of a school emergency was zero.

“There is no such thing as zero response time,” Hale said.

National research shows average response time is three minutes, and that average includes schools with a resource officer on campus.

“We’ve had at least two accidental activations of our Centegix, the crisis alert system at the schools, and our response time was that much or better,” Hale said.

Hale did not say if these were the two incidents of guns at the high school campuses.

“If everybody knows the plan, it’s not a good plan,” he said.

What he did say was “There never was a threat of using those guns for anything in either of the schools.”

1 comment:

Harold Thompson said...

I'm thankful for the seemingly rare moments of reasoned thinking vs knee jerk reactions. Just attended my 50th high school reunion and thinking back on my Metro Atlanta suburban high school days ... any proposal even during the late 60s-early 70s societal upheavals that had armed law enforcement patrolling the hallways would've been met with scorn and ridicule. Arming teachers? A non-starter.