By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer
At the first May meeting (5/6) of the Greene County Board of Supervisors, School Superintendent Andrea Whitmarsh provided the Board an update on the bomb threats at the schools. Greene County Sheriff Steve Smith was asked by several Board members to bring them suggestions on what could be done to address the ongoing bomb threats.
After the May 6th Board of Supervisors meeting, there were several other threats. The week of May 15th, three students were arrested and charged with making the threats (2 in the middle school and 1 in the high school). These arrests and changes in the schools protocols, there have been no more bomb threats.
At the May 27th Board meeting Smith provided the Board a report of his departments response to the sixteen threats in 2014. He indicated that he had dedicated an additional officer to the schools.
Independent of the Sheriff’s office, the staff at the schools have implemented a procedure when the students use the restrooms. Students go to the restroom one at a time. There is an adult – either a teacher, volunteer or a substitute – to log the student in, when the student exits he is detained while the teacher/substitute surveys the restroom to search for a threat and then the student signs out. Since all the threats have been found in restrooms this has proven to be the best tool to eliminate the bomb threats. This procedure takes teachers planning periods away from them – at a time when students are preparing for SOL exams – or the school has to pay for substitutes.
Before the meeting Smith indicated to this reporter that a mother addressed him immediately after the public forum complaining that the Sheriff needed to stop the bomb threats. The next day that mother contacted the Sheriff after her son confessed to her of doing some of the threats. Smith and the mother agreed on community service for the student – this is in addition to any penalty from the legal system. Sheriff Smith said he has asked the judge to do the same penalty – make the student do community service for the Sheriff.
Smith’s recommendation to the Board of Supervisors was to hire an additional deputy and also secure a bomb sniffing dog. Greene County does not have a bomb dog and therefore has to ask for neighboring counties – Augusta, Culpeper, Halifax and Charlottesville and University of Virginia – to lend their officer and bomb dog. In some cases a dog has been available almost immediately from a neighboring county but in other cases it has taken nearly 3 hours just locate an available dog and then he has to be brought to Greene County. All the time, students and staff have been evacuated from their building and wait for the building to be cleared.
The costs associated with the bomb dog and his officer are:
1 Full Time Deputy (per year) $56,563
Training (one time) 6,000
Vehicle Cage (one time) 2,200
Heat Alert System (one time) 830
Dog (one time) 5,000
Food, medical (per year) 5,000
TOTAL COST (Year 1) $75,593 ANNUAL COST $61,563
Smith indicated that this would clear the building much sooner than the current situation – up to 3 hours sooner in the worst case scenario. Also, if there truly is a bomb, it will be discovered sooner and disposed of sooner.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Frydl (Midway) stated that this officer and dog is not in the FY15 budget that has just been approved. Per Frydl, it feels like we are overreacting to 16 threats when we haven’t had that many in years. He also indicated that having a bomb dog and officer will not prevent a bomb threat – it still is reacting to the threat.
The question came up as to what the officer and dog would do when not responding to a threat. Smith stated that training is ongoing – averaging a day per week and also indicated that the officer and dog would be available to neighboring counties – just as they have done for Greene County.
Supervisor David Cox (Monroe) asked Smith how many hours has his department spent with all of the bomb threats this school year. Smith said he would include that answer in his next monthly report.
Frydl said he felt that the request is a knee jerk reaction and there may be other security needs at a higher priority for the $75,000 requested. Supervisor Davis Lamb (Ruckersville) was concerned about all of the lost class time for students and that getting them back to class sooner is important. Frydl stated that the county cannot provide personnel for every situation – we could have officers looking for entrenched snipers. Where is the line vs. the cost for each situation? He further stated that we didn’t look at it during the budget and it is a large request.
Cox stated that the Board did discuss the addition of 1 or 2 School Resource Officers (SRO’s) and finally approved adding 1 to the budget for a total of 3.
Frydl stated that a whole lot more research is needed and the Board of Supervisors is asked for additional personnel all the time. He asked that County Administrator John Barkley work with Smith to evaluate what can be done with the same dollars.
Frydl also explained that this issue would be required to have a public hearing and hoped this could be resolved prior to the next school year. Smith said that there is biannual training sessions with the next 13 week session tentatively scheduled for October, 2014 and that would mean the dog and officer wouldn’t be available until January, 2015 – best case. Barkley stated that he would work with Smith to determine the costs vs. benefits/savings vs. other safety options.
Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization.