Cops in the halls: New $2.3M plan puts an officer in each Beaufort County Public school

In an effort to put armed law enforcement in every Beaufort County school, local agencies are creating a new class of officers with more targeted and less lengthy training, called Class 3 Advanced School Resource Officers.

Every middle and high school already has a SRO, but 16 out of 19 elementary schools rely on private security, according to Sheriff P.J. Tanner, meaning there are about 16 open SRO positions across the county.

Currently, all SROs are Class 1 officers, meaning they have jurisdiction outside of the school. For example, a Class 1 SRO at Bluffton High School has authority anywhere within the Bluffton town limits. A Class 3 officer would only have authority in the school.

Their limited jurisdiction means that Class 3 officers skip training for court demeanor, accident reconstruction and other skills they wouldn’t need in a school setting, according to Tanner. He said they go through the same training as Class 1 SROs for skills they’d need to be effective as an SRO like criminal law, firearms training and defensive tactics.

“It’s quality training,” Tanner said. “But it’s purposed training for the program of being a school resource officer.”

Class 3 Advanced SROs will do eight weeks of basic training and two weeks of SRO training in Beaufort County. Class 1 law enforcement officers complete 12 weeks of basic training in Columbia, South Carolina.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal Police Departments are all offering Class 3 SRO positions. Tanner said he hopes to start training at the end of this month to have officers in schools at the start of next school year.

School Resource Officer Eric Melendez of the Beaufort County Sheriffs Office greets arriving fifth and sixth graders Thursday morning at Whale Branch Middle School in 2009.
School Resource Officer Eric Melendez of the Beaufort County Sheriffs Office greets arriving fifth and sixth graders Thursday morning at Whale Branch Middle School in 2009.

“One of the benefits is that we were able to encourage men and women of all ages, all backgrounds who really never wanted to go to the boot camp that we normally send our officers (to apply),” Tanner said.

The Class 3 SRO officers will be working school hours, meaning that they’d have the summer off like teachers.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Training Council made the change to allow Class 3 officers to be SROs this year as part of a statewide initiative to place an SRO in every South Carolina school led by Gov. Henry McMaster.

The South Carolina General Assembly has provided grant funding for SROs since 2019, but “the challenge has always been finding officers,” Superintendent Frank Rodriguez said.

The state is granting the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office about $145K per officer for personnel, travel, equipment and other expenses. Using this number, if all 16 open positions are filled, the state would grant about $2.3 million between the four county law enforcement agencies.

“The grant is a 100% refundable grant to the agency so we won’t see any refund until we actually put the person to work,” Tanner said. “There’s no money upfront.”

Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy Mike Tannuzzi, Hilton Head Island Middle’s school resource officer, jokes with some eighth graders, including Dillon Nadzak and Felicita Romaro Barragan, in the hallway during a class change in 2009.
Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy Mike Tannuzzi, Hilton Head Island Middle’s school resource officer, jokes with some eighth graders, including Dillon Nadzak and Felicita Romaro Barragan, in the hallway during a class change in 2009.

The district’s private security contract with Coastal Security is projected to be $1.2 million for the fiscal year 2023. Their contract ends in June and the upcoming contract hasn’t been determined. Transitioning to grant funded SROs would free up that money to be used for additional security measures, according to Rodriguez.

“The private security was a temporary measure that the board put in place until SROs were able to be hired,” Rodriguez said.

Coastal Security replaced GuardOne Security in September when the company was fired after two incidents of guards leaving a gun in a school restroom.

The starting salary for Class 3 SROs is $45K, and applications can be submitted through law enforcement websites.

“The fiber of our county is young people,” Tanner said. “We’re looking for those who can foster great relationships, not only with our children, but with teachers and staff.”