A little more than a month after a gun-wielding maniac killed 20 school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. held a press conference to address the issue of armed police officers in public schools. Simply put, he thought it was a bad idea, noting that these officers "would create a false sense of security."
"You got a police officer there and you kind of let your guard down, and we think from our standpoint that there are better methods at making our schools safer," Riley said.
But there aren't, apparently, better methods of making City Hall safer for Riley and his fellow politicians. Following a December 2010 incident in which a man opened fire at a Panama City, Fla., school board meeting, Riley supported an increase in armed police officers at Charleston City Council meetings and the addition of a metal detector at City Hall to protect — you guessed it — the mayor and the rest of council. Apparently in Joe Riley's world, taking out gun-wielding homicidal maniacs is a job for unarmed principals, not politicians.
A few weeks ago, I, along with the listeners of my WTMA 1250 AM morning show, issued Mayor Riley a challenge. If Charleston school teachers and students who can legally carry a concealed weapon should be required to disarm themselves when they enter schools, so should Riley and the City Council. After all, if armed police officers don't belong in our schools, then they clearly don't belong at City Hall, either. We're still waiting for a response from him to our e-mails. So far, Riley and council have shown no signs that they plan to decrease the presence of armed officers at City Council meetings. Evidently, they've developed a false sense of security they aren't in a hurry to give up.
But in the days and weeks since Riley held that post-Sandy Hook press conference, he has developed an appreciation for the merits of using armed security to protect children. He now says he wants teams of officers to patrol Charleston's schools.
"The world has changed," Riley said last week. "There are guns out there. There are wacky people out there. And our children deserve protection."
There's a catch, of course. If Charleston residents want the armed officers in the city, they'll have to fork over $3.9 million as part of a tax increase. But while that new revenue will pay for 19 officers to patrol the city's public and private elementary schools, it will also be used to pay for nine additional officers in the busy Upper King area, plus another two new fire stations and 45 new firefighters.
Of course, the kids won't get anywhere near as much police protection as Riley and the council get. Groups of three officers would patrol schools, and those schools would be divided into eight geographic zones. So there wouldn't always be an officer present in most schools all the time, like there is at City Council meetings. But at least it's something. And it can't come soon enough.
On the same day that Riley announced his about-face, 28-year-old Alice Boland, a Beaufort woman with a history of mental illness, turned up at Ashley Hall and pulled the trigger again and again, but the gun did not fire. City police told the local media that Boland went to the school intending to shed blood. Had the gun worked, this story could have ended very differently. It took police officers several minutes to arrive at the scene, which would have been several minutes too late. No doubt the false sense of security that the students and staff at Ashley Hall once had has since been shattered.
Yes, it can happen here in Charleston, and in a crazy world, a lot of other bad stuff can too. We need to protect our children. If funding for school police officers takes a small tax increase, fine. But if the mayor wants a tax increase for new firefighters, firehouses, and police officers for other parts of town, he needs to fund that separately, rather than holding parents hostage to his own political agenda.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and the North Charleston City Council didn't waste time after the Sandy Hook shooting. Armed police officers are already patrolling North Charleston schools. They should be patrolling Charleston schools, too. It's time to act now, before the sense of security of children at another Charleston school proves to be false.
Tara Servatius is the host of the Tara on TMA show on WTMA 1250 AM.