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Safety leaders address security after gun discoveries in Rock Hill Schools

The district assembled a panel of law enforcement and other community leaders, to take questions and input on security from parents.

ROCK HILL, S.C. — With the discovery of guns on three different Rock Hill Schools campuses last month, the district sought to get to the bottom of why this happened, share what it is doing to keep students and teachers safe, and take input from parents on what other steps it could take.

Safety forum held Monday

The district held a safety forum Monday night, assembling a panel including the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Rock Hill Police, York County Sheriff's Office, the Solicitor's Office, and various district leaders.

One of the top questions the panel fielded from parents was, "Why is this happening?"

Collective answers from SLED chief Mark Keel, York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson, and Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts pointed to a complex answer, with factors including more guns on the street than ever before.

"I can tell you when I started in 1976, we didn't see near the guns on the street," Keel said. "On top of that, we're seeing younger and younger people with guns, and it's statewide. It's a nationwide problem. We have to be accountable for our guns."

Keel noted that a "majority" of guns making it to the streets are stolen from cars, some of which are unlocked, making for easier targeting.

Some of the problems are gang-related. Officials also pointed to lacking guidance at home.

"The number one reason to join a gang is to fill a void in your life, to have a sense of belonging, and to have--albeit a bad mentor -- to have mentors," Tolson said.

Despite the unsettling impact the firearms discoveries had on the community, Tolson said he would look at the positives.

"Three guns were found in a week in Rock Hill Schools," Tolson said. "That sounds bad, right? As sheriff, I'm glad we found three guns. Because if parents think that not finding guns means they're not there, you're mistaken. They're there. That means Rock Hill Schools are looking. If you're not looking, you're not finding."

RELATED: Safety concerns from parents, teachers after guns found at schools

Rock Hill Schools attributes the gun findings to random security searches and safety training of staff, including school resource officers. The district noted Monday it has an armed officer in every school, with 15 school resource officers, 19 school security officers, and three campus security associates district-wide.

Next steps for school safety

On Monday, the district said it would continue those random searches and it is exploring other safety options. Clear backpacks are being considered.

"The next step is to take a look at what does that process look like?" Helena Miller, the chairperson of the Rock Hill school board, asked. " You know, how do you implement it? How do you pay for it? I know that there are some federal programs out there."

Some parents want to see other devices used.

 “I think eventually metal detectors need to be implemented,” a concerned parent said.

“Law enforcement, as well as SLED that was there, shared some of the challenges that come with metal detectors --specific to staffing,” Miller said.

When it comes to metal detectors, Miller said they are not off the books, but they would want to do more research and get information from other districts using them.

The district also hired a new safety and security director last year who will re-evaluate current procedures, as WCNC Charlotte reporter Indira Eskieva previously reported.

'It's a multifaceted approach'

When it comes to school safety, leaders say it takes a village. That includes partnerships with law enforcement, local businesses, mental health experts, and strong community leaders.

“It's a multifaceted approach in terms of involving mental health, involving every single group that you can think of in the community, whether it's faith-based, or community organizations as a whole,” Miller said.

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A campaign by the city called “#1 Question: Is it good for the children?” partners with the school district to recognize the importance of all children in the community. Miller said this initiative fits under this community approach.

“Basically encourage the movers and the shakers, business owners and everybody in the community to before they make any decisions at all to ask themselves is this the right move for kids?” Miller said.

Jennifer Crawford is the chairperson for Rock Hill’s Commission for Children & Youth and works with the campaign. She said mental health is a big focus.

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“We’re hoping to help the family as a whole, like when we were made aware of the school district's mental health services,” Crawford said. “We want to make sure the community knows about that, that that is a free service for all the children in Rock Hill schools.”

The idea is through collaborative efforts and workshops to connect families with resources they need which essentially benefits the children.

“Statistics have shown that if children just have one caring adult in their lives, the outcomes are so much better,” Crawford said.

Crawford also said enhancing mentorship programs, supporting Big Brother Big Sister clubs, and working with other nonprofits can help make a difference in children’s lives.

Contact Jesse Pierre at jpierrepet@wcnc.com or follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. 

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

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