Just because they don’t seek the spotlight doesn’t mean Columbia County School System safety officers aren’t protecting pupils.
They prefer to operate under the radar and don’t want to draw a lot of attention, said Lance Poss, the director of the Department of School Safety.
“Safety is the word,” Poss said. “Obviously, their primary concern is the students’ (safety) first.”
Eight officers protect pupils, staff and visitors at school system properties including five high schools, eight middle schools, 18 elementary schools, the alternative school and administrative offices.
Poss has been a school safety officer since 1996; he took over as director in July after former Director Buddy Hendry died in March 2012.
The scope of the officers’ jobs and the level of organization stepped up after the shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999.
“That was a game-changer for everybody,” Poss said. “It wasn’t the first school shooting, but it was the first major mass shooting that came to the forefront and really opened everybody’s eyes about things. That was a game-changer for everybody.”
The only similar incident in Columbia County occurred in March 1993, when sophomore Bryant Gillom used a .38-caliber revolver to gun down two classmates. Ronricas “Pony” Gibson died. Gillom claimed he had been bullied by the classmates he shot and was later acquitted of murder and aggravated assault. He was sentenced to five years in prison after a jury convicted him of possessing a weapon on school grounds.
At Columbine, two students shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher and injured nearly two dozen more. In the wake of the shooting, Columbia County officers led the effort to create school safety plans. They were some of the first approved by the federal and state Emergency Management agencies, Superintendent Charles Nagle said.
“We do have really good plans,” he said. “We have tested them all for everything you can imagine. We’re continuously putting our plans to the test with drills.
“You can’t plan for everything, but if you don’t have a plan at all, you can’t get started. “
Because the system’s school safety plans are comprehensive, Poss said, the recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut put officers on alert but didn’t cause major changes in emergency plans.
After such incidents, officers review and reevaulate safety plans with school administrators. They tweak any areas that need attention.
“We try to keep our training up,” Poss said. “So when something does happen, we’re already prepared for it.”
All eight of the officers – Poss, Angela Collins, Tim Johnson, Chris Knoeferl, Michael Leverett, Tim Perry, Duke Smalley and Nash Garrett – are former Columbia County sheriff’s deputies and have other law enforcement experience.
Each is assigned three to five schools to monitor. Their days usually begin in the high school or middle school parking lots with traffic duty. Once pupils are in class, officers typically patrol the school.
“We try to have as few unlocked doors as possible,” Poss said.
The department is a Georgia POST- (Peace Officer Standards and Training) certified law enforcement agency. The officers keep up training and annual testing to maintain their certification.
Their jurisdiction is the school system’s 37 properties.
“Our department is operated and certified just like any city police or anywhere else,” Nagle said. “They do a tremendous job. … My only disappointment is that we can’t hire more to help offset having 31 schools to cover with only eight officers.”
Poss said the long-term goal is to have a safety officer in each high and middle school.
That’s where good working relationships with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Grovetown Department of Public Safety and Harlem Police Department come in.
“The sheriff’s office (and city departments) help with concentrated patrols,” Poss said. “They kind of focus on schools that don’t have safety officers in them.”
Nagle said he’s confident pupils are as safe as they can be.
“Above anywhere else, if I had to put a child (in school), it would be in Columbia County,” Nagle said. “That’s not to say something bad can’t happen. But what I’m saying is if something was to happen, I would feel more secure if my children were in Columbia County than anywhere else.”