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County inches closer to an SRO in every school

Sheriff Lowell Griffin speaks to the School Board about school resource officers. Sheriff Lowell Griffin speaks to the School Board about school resource officers.

The Henderson County sheriff’s office has closed the gap in the county’s goal of protecting every school with an armed deputy, reducing the vacancies from 11 to five with a couple more SROs in the pipeline.

Sheriff Lowell Griffin, who was sworn in to the job in December, reported to the School Board on Monday night that 18 of the 23 school campuses are covered (the Early College and Career Academy share the Innovative High School. Although five schools — all elementary schools — are without an on-site SRO, supervisors in the division are available to respond to emergencies.
“We’ve actually identified applicants that are in the process or in training that are not even listed here so our deficit is definitely shrinking,” Griffin said. “It is a challenge to keep identifying officers because I don’t want somebody in the schools that just wants a job. I want the right people in the schools guarding the most precious asset that this county has. We’ve got some real quality folks in this division and we want to keep moving forward with that.”
Just over a year ago, in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, School Board and then-Sheriff Charlie McDonald committed to putting an armed guard in every school. Commissioners also increased funding for counselors and social workers. Those changes, Griffin said, have been effective.
“SROs are working closely with the schools' mental health counselors and the social workers to identify the youth that are at risk,” he said. “That interaction has already paid dividends in identifying and mitigating a potential incident before it even developed. That dialog is huge.”
Shortly after his election, Griffin restructured the department to put SROs under command level leadership, elevating them from being a unit under support services. He promoted veteran SRO Jesse Blankenship to lieutenant and put him in charge of the division, and added Sgt. Stephanie Cantwell and Cpl. Jonathan Tankersly to the supervisory team.
“They’re top notch anywhere you put them,” Griffin said. “They chose to want to work, want to serve in the school resource division. They would be outstanding anywhere in the organization but I’m glad to have them looking after the schools.”
Filling an SRO opening takes time. Once the department has identified a hire, background checks, physicals and other processes consume about two months; field training adds another three months.
“By the time they walk through the doors as an SRO, we could be looking at about five months,” Griffin said. “We have been working to fill a lot of voids but we have been working at a breakneck pace to try to get SROs in all of our schools.”
Griffin drew chuckles from the board when he clarified the title of armed officers in schools.
“In the past it got kind of confusing because we tried to change the name to school resource deputies instead of school resource officers,” he said. “Here’s the thing. They’re officers. If it talks like a duck and walks like a duck it’s probably a duck. These folks that are employed in these positions are school resource officers.”
School Board member Blair Craven thanked Griffin for the progress he had made in lowering the number of uncovered schools to five, from 11.
“Thank you for making this a priority because it’s been a priority for us,” Craven said.
The next challenge, the sheriff said, takes place in December, when North Carolina's so-called Raise the Age law goes into effect.
“It’s going to be pretty significant going forward,” Griffin said.

Outside the meeting, he said the new law means that young people 15-18 years old committing a variety of lesser offenses will be charged as juveniles and not as adults. Officers will have to take them to a juvenile detention center outside the county once they’re booked. The state is in the process of certifying counties that have the capacity and ability to segregate the teenagers from adult inmates, he said, and so far has not announced where those will be.