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Commission to use SS/HS grant as guide

Posted: January 17, 2013 6:00 p.m.
Updated: January 18, 2013 5:00 a.m.

As plans develop with the Safe Communities Commission (SCC) recently created by Kershaw County Council, a federal grant focusing on safety in schools will serve as a template according to local officials.

Kershaw County Board of School Trustees Chair Mara Jones, who introduced the proposal to council, indicated programs associated with the county’s Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) grant will help shape the commission as it progresses.

 “The (SS/HS) grant is an excellent template for what has been accomplished in our county so far,” Jones said. “This commission could model that template and replicate it to move forward.”

SS/HS Grant Director Kevin Rhodes, who will serve as SCC chairman, agreed, saying the successes of the grant’s projects will help create an effective model.

Kershaw County applied for the $5.7 million SS/HS grant, with the Kershaw County School District (KCSD) acting as its administrator, after Camden High School student Michael Smith died in a gang-related shooting in December 2007. Funding from the grant has been applied to help reduce recidivism at the KCSD’s Continuous Learning Center, provide targeted counseling to 2,900 students and create a positive behavioral program that will be expanded to all middle schools. SS/HS funding will end in 2014.

Rhodes noted that with the grant being so closely tied to schools, SS/HS projects would mostly serve as a starting point that could be expanded to fit the entire community.

“This may wind up being the natural evolution of our project,” Rhodes said, referring to the crossover from the SS/HS grant to the creation of the commission. “We knew the project was a good and honest attempt to get it right from the beginning. There was an understanding though that once you begin something so complex, there’s always going to be something that you either didn’t think of or didn’t work out they way you expected it to.”

Rhodes also said the commission, comprised of 14 community leaders, will try to operate proactively and work to anticipate potential community problems. 

“It puts us in a position to ask ourselves questions before we’re asking ourselves why. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re asking how could this have happened. We want to be able to ask what we can do to prevent something bad from happening,” he said.

Rhodes pointed to the recent mass shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., as an example of a worst case scenario.

“Obviously, the attempt will be to prevent something like that. It will also be an attempt to prevent things that aren’t nearly on that scale, but can be damaging and disruptive,” Rhodes said.

He said bringing together community leaders from a broad collection of the county will help move the commission towards its goals.

“It’s of the utmost importance to have a diverse group of people. I’m talking about diversity in all of its forms, people from all corners of the county, people from government, people from the private sector, people from law enforcement, people from the human services aspect of it. It has to be a community discussion,” Rhodes said.

He expects the group’s first meeting to be held Wednesday, Jan. 30.

“We are going to get right to work,” he said. “If anybody can make a coalition like this mean something and work, it would be Kershaw County.”

Camden Police Department Chief Joe Floyd, a SCC member, felt school safety would likely be one of the group’s first priorities.

“If your communities aren’t safe, then generally your schools aren’t safe,” Floyd said. “First of all, you have to make the physical aspects of your school as safe as possible, but you also have to make your community safe.”

He also stressed the importance of having a broad based community effort.

“The level of involvement you have is going to be directly tied to what level of success you will have,” Floyd said. “There’s no way I could say no after being asked to be on a group like that. It’s a concern for everyone that lives in the county, their personal safety and the safety of their family and friends.”

Elgin Mayor Brad Hanley, also a SCC member, anticipates a valuable dialogue to be created, but also hopes potential community issues would be defined effectively.    

“There’s a need for it. The only question in my mind is what can we do, how effective will that be, and how much will it cost,” Hanley said. “We’re going to have to look at statistics, reports and events that have happened and study that. All the history is going to be necessary to reveal to us what we think might be the best course of action going forward.”

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