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Forsyth County school chief refutes sheriff candidate's campaign pledge on SROs
School system will not endorse either candidate

FORSYTH COUNTY — In what he described as an effort to clarify two points stirred by questions from the public, the head of the Forsyth County school system has addressed one candidate’s campaign for sheriff.

During the Board of Education’s monthly meeting Thursday night, Superintendent Jeff Bearden took exception with Ron Freeman’s campaign pledge to place a school resource officer on every campus.

Freeman is challenging incumbent Sheriff Duane Piper in the May 24 Republican primary. There are no Democrats running, so the winner will secure the post.

“At this point, I have not and would not make that recommendation [to add school resource officers]. I believe our current staffing of SROs is highly effective,” Bearden said. “I want to be clear to the public — while Mr. Freeman is campaigning on the pledge to place SROs in all of our schools, ultimately this [school] board has final say.”

Bearden added “that our current relationship with our sheriff’s department is outstanding.”

“As I’ve stated earlier, I’ve never requested full-time SROs in our elementary schools,” he said.

Bearden did not offer specifics about the questions he had fielded, or how many there were, but at least three members of the five-person school board said they had also received similar queries.

Freeman said in a statement that he never wants “to pick and choose which students get to be fully protected and which do not.”

“The results of a recent drug usage survey show drugs are in every school in Forsyth,” he said. “As the parent of a student, that scares me. But I know that a sheriff’s office that was fully committed to protecting every student could do something about that danger to our kids. And that means addressing the problem where it is — in every school, not just some of them.”

There are 34 traditional schools in the system. According to Jennifer Caracciolo, spokeswoman for the district, there are 14 deputies who perform school resource officer duties.

The system pays for six of them, while the sheriff’s office covers the others, she said.

Lambert and North and South Forsyth high schools have their own officer. Forsyth Central High’s deputy also supports the Gateway Academy, while West Forsyth High’s supports Kelly Mill Elementary.

Middle and elementary schools are generally covered by feeder cluster, according to Caracciolo. For example, North Forsyth Middle and Coal Mountain and Silver City elementary schools are covered by one officer, who rotates patrols on those campuses throughout the day.

The same goes for clusters such as Otwell Middle and Cumming and Whitlow elementary schools and Forsyth Academy, as well as for Liberty Middle and Matt and Sawnee elementary schools.

In a statement, Piper described the safety of schools as “a collaborative effort between the sheriff’s office and the school system.”

“Thanks to this highly effective partnership, we are proud to have shown a continuous track record of keeping our students safe,” Piper said.

The second point Bearden addressed centers on a campaign video Freeman reportedly filmed on school district property, including Coal Mountain Elementary and the north transportation center.

“Mr. Freeman did not ask, nor did he receive, permission to film a campaign video on our property,” Bearden said. “This is not an indictment of Mr. Freeman … he is not the first candidate for local office to make a video on one of our campuses without our permission.

“I want to be clear that if we were asked, we would deny any such request. Forsyth County Schools does not endorse any political candidate. Allowing candidates to film on school grounds may give the perception that we support a certain candidate.”

Bearden went on to note that he, as an educator, has “never publicly supported any candidate for local office. Once again, I will not endorse any candidate this year.”

“I have to — and I will — work with whoever our citizens elect to represent us all in the upcoming races,” Bearden said. “Whoever wins the election for sheriff, and I do wish Mr. Freeman and Sheriff Piper the very best, I will work closely with that person to continue to ensure that our schools remain safe for students and staff.”