Safety a concern as students across Carolinas head back to school

FORT MILL, S.C. — Students from South Carolina -- and a handful in North Carolina -- headed back to the classroom Monday morning.

Schools in Chester, Chesterfield, Lancaster and York counties, as well as Avery County in North Carolina, began the 2022-2023 year.

On the first day back, a student brought a pistol in their backpack to South Middle School, officials said. A school resource officer seized the firearm and a criminal investigation began. The student was suspended, district officials said.

Earlier in the day, South Carolina Bureau Reporter Tina Terry spoke with leaders in Lancaster County about the district’s efforts to keep students and teachers safe.

One thing parents and students noticed was more security. Officials began enhancing safety measures in May after the deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

One idea includes a school watch program. Retired police officers, veterans and parents will patrol elementary schools in the district and make sure doors remain closed.

The program will add extra sets of eyes to schools in the district that do not have school resource officers.

“We want them to understand their role is to be good eyes and ears,” said Bryan Vaughn, a spokesperson for the Lancaster School District. “Making sure we’re checking doors, keep doors locked, in parking lots. … If they see anything we want them to report it and get law enforcement involved.”

Volunteers went through a criminal background check and special training. The district said about 10 volunteers will start this week and they’re hoping to have 20 volunteers by the third week of school.

While safety remains at the top of people’s minds, several students and parents told Channel 9 they’re ready for the school year’s return.

In Fort Mill, 18,000 students start school Monday and they can expect a few changes in the new year.

School breakfast and lunch will cost families money once again. A federal program during the pandemic made meals free, but that expired. Now meals will cost between $1 and $3, the district said.

Fort Mill is also prioritizing safety with a new virtual tip-line for students concerned over weapons, bullying or incidents of self-harm. More information is available on the district’s website.

For the first time in years, COVID-19 restrictions won’t be quite as tight in schools and classrooms.

In Fort Mill, the district says it won’t be conducting contact tracing or requiring students to quarantine if they test positive. Parents are required to report positive COVID-19 to the districts, but testing itself isn’t required.

Instead, they’ll use the guidelines from the state health department. Essentially, the state recommends that if your student doesn’t feel well, they should stay home.

That marks a stark change from the rules of last school year when lunch was limited to the classroom, recess groups were smaller and visitors weren’t allowed on campus, all to squash the spread of COVID-19.

Some parents told Channel 9 they’re hoping for a more normal start to the school year.

“It feels good, it makes me happy she can have a normal school year this especially ‘cause she’s so young still,” parent Kristy Blocker said.

Channel 9 also spoke with students who spent Sunday afternoon trying to soak up their last few hours of summer.

“Well, I’m a little scared, because its my first time,” first grader Emma Blocker told us.

“I’m excited. Nervous, but excited,” said middle schooler C.J. Stewart. “(There will be) a whole bunch of new people.”

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