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Sheriff’s candidates answer questions at student-led forum

Posted: May 10, 2018 3:29 p.m.
Updated: May 11, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Student organizers and Kershaw County Sheriff’s candidates line up for a group photo following a student-led forum Monday night at Camden High School, including (L-R) Lugoff-Elgin High School student Abbey Mackey, candidate Anthony Bell, CHS student Caroline Woolard, candidate Donald Branham, North Central High School student Kye Adams, candidate Lee Boan, CHS student Tyshawn Gant, candidate Jack Rushing, CHS students Ryan Dabbs (who led the effort to hold the forum) and Heather Woolard, and candidate Eric Tisdale.

All five candidates vying to be the next sheriff of Kershaw County answered prepared questions from students at a forum held in Camden High School’s (CHS) auditorium Monday night. Democrat Anthony Bell and Republicans Lee Boan, Donald Branham, Jack Rushing and Eric Tisdale all appeared at the forum, organized by CHS student Ryan Dabbs and other students from CHS, Lugoff-Elgin and North Central high schools.

CHS English and journalism teacher Amy Goodwin served as moderator.

Ryan said he came up with the student-led forum concept to fight the stereotype that “kids don’t care.”

“I wanted to give something to the schools that would be influential to them in making correct choices,” Ryan said, especially students who will be eligible to vote in the June primary and November general election. “I also wanted to remove the veil between politicians and the public.”

In addition, Ryan and his fellow organizers saw the forum as a chance to get residents registered to vote, regardless of age. Seventeen-year-old students who will be 18 by Election Day can register now in order to vote in the June 12 Republican and Democratic party primaries as well as during the general election on Nov. 6.

And why did Ryan pick the sheriff’s candidates, as opposed to opening the forum up to candidates from all races?

“I felt the sheriff’s race wasn’t as tied to parties,” he said, referring to the fact that only one of the candidates is a Democrat, “so I didn’t think it would be as polarizing as the others.”

The format consisted of Goodwin asking 10 questions prepared ahead of time by students. All the candidates were given the chance to answer the questions in a set amount of time in round-robin fashion. After answering all 10 questions, each candidate had 1 minute to give a closing statement for the evening. Goodwin and student time keepers rigorously kept to this format, which kept the program to under an hour.

The night’s two big topics were how to cover the entire county with enough deputies and getting school resource officers (SROs) into every school in the county.

Branham said he has come up with a “community-oriented policing plan” that calls for adding more zones for deputies to patrol than it currently does by increasing the number of deputies on patrol.

Tisdale called for reclassifying deputies assigned to the sheriff’s traffic enforcement unit as “resident” deputies so they could adequately cover the county. He estimated that, including a traffic officer currently under an expiring grant, he could have 11, instead of six, deputies on patrol per shift.

Boan, currently serving as a captain at the Camden Police Department, also called for shifting traffic enforcement deputies to regular patrols, calling them the “backbone” of the sheriff’s office. He said the money is available, and that it is more a matter of re-prioritizing than funding.

Bell said he, too, would like more deputies on the road and that he would split the county into regions to cover. However, he admitted he did not know if he would have the funding to reach that goal.

Rushing, who is the current chief deputy of the Kershaw County Sheriffs’ Office, said deputies responded to a little more than 40,000 calls for service during 2017, with the highest call volume being in the West Wateree. Rushing acknowledged there are only six deputies per shift, and said each of those deputies deserves a day off, meaning there are days when a shift only has five deputies.

“The only way to respond to calls is to respond to calls. We have a limited number of deputies that need to increase over time,” Rushing said, but did not indicate how he would seek doing so.

Several of the candidates good-naturedly called out to Kershaw County Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr., who happened to be in the audience, about finding a way to fund placing SROs in all the county’s schools. Tucker is currently serving as co-chair of a joint Kershaw County Council/Kershaw County Board of School Trustees ad hoc committee on growth, SRO funding and school safety.

“We might have to take baby steps,” Tisdale said of getting SROs in all schools, “And when you get to the second part, how’re we gonna pay for them, simple answer, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m hoping Mr. Tucker … will come up with some good solutions on how we’re going to pay for our SROs.”

Tisdale also suggested looking at off-duty or retired deputies to work as SROs.

Bell said he would sit down with county council and school board to come up with something that would work because having SROs in each school is important due to the recent spate of school shootings and threats.

Boan repeated his call for re-prioritization.

“I think the money’s already there,” Boan said. “When you get your paycheck, you’ve got to decide: Are you going to make a house payment, a car payment or are you going to the movies tonight? There are certain things you can prioritize pretty simply.”

Boan added that it will be parents and students who will “keep this thing going” that started in Florida following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. He said schools in Kershaw County are already safer than they were before the shooting in February because of the cooperation between various agencies and the school district.

“But they need to be safer, so let’s get our priorities straight and you all need to help us push these resource officers,” Boan said, adding, “Mr. Tucker?”

Branham called SROs the “first line of defense in our schools” and that it is “unacceptable” that there are not SROs in each school. He said the ad hoc committee has solutions going out to the public for feedback and that there may also be additional grant funding sources.

Rushing, too, wants to see more SROs in schools. He even said he would like to see multiple deputies in the high schools, especially at Camden and Lugoff-Elgin due to their student populations.

“As far as the funding source, it’s very simple,” Rushing said. “We should follow the mold of other counties in South Carolina and develop a formula. That formula, according to my research is about 75 percent funded by the school district and about 25 percent is funded by the county. It needs to be as clear as a bell, simple fact: funding can be there, I think it is there.”

Other highlights:

• School threats -- Boan called for “zero tolerance,” with which the other candidates appeared to agree. Branham, as he would often during the evening, spoke about the SRO “triad” concept -- educating, counseling and mentoring, in addition to law enforcement -- to prevent and respond to school threats.

• Student relations with SROs and other law enforcement -- “It’s hard to hate up close,” Boan said in relation to this topic, meaning he felt deputies and students should make themselves approachable to each other. Boan, Branham and Rushing all used this topic as a launching pad to talk about getting SROs in every school. Rushing also lamented the lack of driver’s education in the county, saying it not only teaches driving skills, but how to interact with officers during traffic stops. Tisdale talked several times about creating an SRO-organized “summer sheriff’s kids camp.”

• Drugs -- Tisdale said he would like SROs to bring back some form of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program to Kershaw County. Bell said parents need to be more mindful about access to prescription drugs. In addition to educating students about drugs’ effects and locking up drug dealers, Boan said users need to be rehabilitated in order to “fight the total drug problem.”

• Social media -- Rushing warned that students who use social to “photograph their bodies” and send the photos to other people are “creating and disseminating child pornography,” noting they could go to jail for doing so. Tisdale warned that there are child predators on the internet and that students may not know with whom they are really communicating online. Bell said adults also “put crazy things” online, and that students need to understand that what they post will follow them for the rest of their lives. Boan suggested students not put anything online they wouldn’t want their parents or a future employer to see. Branham listed cyberbullying as a problem and suggested parents do what they can to see what their children are doing online.

• Teen driving -- All of the candidates agreed that students need to put away their cell phones and other distracting devices while driving. Boan suggested students leave earlier from home in order not to have to speed to school. Rushing called again for a return of driver’s education in schools.

• Open door policy for teens -- Bell said young people he’s talked to feel they can’t talk to officers and that “it shouldn’t be that way.” Branham said SROs are also CROs -- community relations officers -- and that they need to interact with students when they’re not in uniform. He and Tisdale also wanted to see an Explorers program reinstated at the sheriff’s office. Rushing said he wanted to know who wrote the question, so they could ask the student which officer they were talking about so that deputy could receive additional training on interacting with young people.

• Mental health issues -- most, if not all, of the candidates agreed that law enforcement officers are not professionals in that area. What they can do, they said, is direct students who need help to mental health resources at their respective schools.

• Relationships with other agencies -- Rushing and Boan said they have contacts in a number of local, state and federal agencies they can use to have them work together on cases. Tisdale and Bell suggested Kershaw County-based agencies and those from surrounding counties could meet at last twice a year to share information in an effort to clear cases. Branham said that building bridges would not be difficult for him and that he would invite other agencies into the county to increase law enforcement’s presence in an effort to reduce crime.

• Closing statements -- Bell suggested the students who put together Monday night’s program will be the ones to “make a statement in November” at the polls because they are “sick and tired” of what has been happening across the country. Boan stuck to his theme of prioritizing resources; he said while it would be nice for residents to write him a blank check as sheriff, he will make what needs to be the top priority come first, which he said is students. Branham said he would employ out of the box thinking regarding funding and “rearrange things” as someone with a “new vision.” Rushing said two of the reasons he is running for sheriff are his 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, making him care about what happens in the county. Finally, Tisdale -- who said he wants to bring the county better service from the sheriff’s office -- said all five candidates would make a good sheriff … and then suggested everyone check out his website first, eliciting a laugh from the audience.

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