MAYSVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Uniformed deputies, gun holsters at their sides, walked the hallways and stopped in classrooms Monday, eliciting smiles from teachers and high-fives from youngsters as they made security rounds that are becoming routine in this northeastern Kentucky community.
Mason County Sheriff Patrick Boggs has assigned his 11 full-time deputies to spend four hours each week at local public and private schools in the county 140 miles northeast of Louisville. The initiative follows last month's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school that claimed the lives of 20 children and six school staff.
"I think it'll help just for a sense of security," Boggs said. "It's sad for the reasoning behind it. What happened in Connecticut could happen anywhere."
Boggs and Deputy Ryan Hull hugged and high-fived pupils at Straub Elementary in Maysville as school resumed following the holiday break. They answered questions — the most frequent being what was all that stuff on their duty belts. And they occasionally told kids their shoes were untied.
The sheriff wants his deputies to blend into the schools, becoming as much a fixture as reading and recess. He wants them to take time to read to classes, review school safety plans and become well acquainted with each school's layout in the event of an emergency.
As Hull stood at the side of a classroom, kindergarten teacher Lauren Doyle told her class that the officers are their friends.
"They're just making sure we're all safe," she said.
Parents and teachers praised the sheriff for his commitment to school safety.
"That's my only baby," Amy Combs said after helping her son, a kindergartener, take off his jacket in the hallway before he headed to class.
Combs said she'd favor installing metal detectors at the front doors near the office at Straub Elementary. Those doors are the only ones unlocked during the school day. Another parent, Zac Horch, said he'd like to see a law enforcement officer posted at the school throughout the day.
"Taxpayers spend a lot of money on a lot of different things," he said. "I don't see why we couldn't afford to do that. That's something I'd rather spend my tax money on."
School safety expert Jon Akers said having a law enforcement officer at school "is a preferred practice," if a community can afford it.
In the past school year, 241 resource officers were assigned at Kentucky public schools, said Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. Those officers are sworn law enforcement officers with additional training to work in school settings.
"Anytime we can have a show of law enforcement at a school to serve as a deterrent, it's certainly preferred and we certainly endorse that," he said in a phone interview.
However, his group frowns on arming security guards or even principals in schools.
The National Rifle Association's response to the Connecticut school massacre envisions, in part, having trained, armed volunteers in every school in America.
Akers said there's a big difference between a trained law enforcement officer and a guard with a gun.
"We need to leave the firearm issues to the professionals that are trained to deal with that," he said.
Brandis Carlson, a kindergarten teacher at Straub, said having officers spend time at school "makes everybody a little more at ease." Second-grade teacher Brenda Huber said the ties that law enforcement officers develop with students can be lasting.
"Them making a connection with the kids ... will let them know that they're the good guys and they're here to help us," she said.
State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has urged school districts to "double check" their safety plans — required under state law — and their procedures for safety drills and parental notification, in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. He said those plans should reflect individual needs of each school and district. He said he also expects a broad debate about school safety that includes lawmakers, law enforcement, educators and parents.
"I hope those discussions will address a number of issues, including support and services for the mentally ill, gun control and additional funding to support school safety and school resource officers," he said.
Training local law enforcement to conduct audits and support schools in their safety efforts are also important, he said.
Boggs, the local sheriff, is no recent convert to having a law enforcement presence in schools.
When he was first elected in 2006, he promised to spend time at the schools. Last fall, he approached the local school board with the idea of hiring a deputy assigned full time to the schools; the salary would be split between the sheriff's office and school district. His proposal fizzled but he's now trying to revive it.
For now, his deputies will spend on average one hour per day at local schools on top of their four 10-hour weekly shifts. The deputies will rotate schools so they are acquainted with each one. They will vary the time of their visits.
Maysville city police officers also routinely visit the schools. On Monday, Hull strolled the halls with city police Officer Matt Walton.
For the rest of this school year, the time the sheriff's deputies spend at schools will be considered overtime, Boggs said. He sees it as a good investment.
"Our kids are our No. 1 priority, and our schools are," he said.