Sumter police chief speaks to school board


Sumter's police chief says the issue of school safety related to potential shootings is an emerging issue that must be dealt with proactively by local law enforcement working in association with schools.

Chief Russell Roark spoke to the Sumter School District Board of Trustees on Monday at its regularly scheduled work session after a mass shooting at a Florida high school Feb. 14 that killed 17 and a rash of "copy cat" threats at schools, including a few in the area.

"This is not a problem that can be eradicated by placing one person in jail for the rest of their life," Roark said. "It's an ongoing, recurring issue that we've got to deal with."

Roark discussed various activities Sumter Police Department has conducted in the last two weeks in schools and with district administrators to ensure student safety and fully investigate all threats or pranks of impending violence. He said his department takes every threat seriously, and the safety of children is everyone's top priority.

He also discussed a longer-term approach toward solving the problem that his department has implemented in the last several years by trying to build positive relationships inside the district's elementary schools.

Roark said many children may have a negative perception of the police from a young age, especially if they come from a difficult home environment and have seen police officers perform some of the harder aspects of their job, such as when the Department of Social Services gets involved.

"They see this uniform and connect this uniform with something bad," Roark said. "We took them out of their home. As bad as it may be, that's still home, and that's still Mama and still Dad. So, what we try to do is to develop a dialogue and at the earliest age start to build a relationship and nurture some of these kids."

School board member the Rev. Ralph Canty told Roark in various news reports he's been saddened to see the bad home environments that many of these shooters come from. He also said he hoped some of those children could be nurtured.

Roark said that stresses the importance of the department's interaction with children at a young age.

"Most children just want to be loved and taken care of," Roark said. "You can see that as you interact with children. So, it's very important that we continue to do that."

On the topic of school safety, Interim Superintendent Debbie Hamm reviewed various safety drills that all schools in the district perform and said school safety is an ongoing process and will be continuously upgraded.

Sumter School District Intervention Services Coordinator Kathy Morrison also discussed the district's new school safety threat online reporting system, known as Sprigeo, that students and parents can use from each school's website. The district implemented the reporting system in January primarily for bullying, but officials are seeing its benefits with larger school safety issues.