Commissioner looks for allies in SRO battle

J. H. Osborne • Jan 18, 2007 at 10:51 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - If Sullivan County school officials support Sullivan County Commissioner Dennis Houser's call for more school resource officers (SROs), they're going to have to step forward and say so.

Earlier this week, the Sullivan County Commission deferred consideration of more SROs to patrol the county school system's middle schools. Commissioners who asked for the deferral said they want some input on the issue from Sullivan County School Superintendent Glenn Arwood. They asked Houser to ask Arwood to come to next month's commission meeting if the SRO issue is going to come back for a vote.

SROs already are on staff to patrol the county school system's high schools. This is not the first time Houser has attempted to get funds approved so SROs will be put in place at the middle school level. He tried last spring, but withdrew that proposal after little support emerged from his fellow commissioners.

Houser launched his latest effort last month, calling for $185,000 to fund four new sheriff's officers to serve as SROs.

A letter from the sheriff's department later lowered that estimate to about $176,000 - including about $24,000 in one-time start-up costs, for training, uniforms and equipment.

When the county commission met Tuesday, Houser confirmed an annual estimated cost of about $152,000. His proposal called for funding to be split between the sheriff's budget, the school system's budget, and the county's general fund surplus.

Houser said fellow commissioners' reaction to the proposal has made the issue one of the most difficult challenges he has dealt with in his years as a commissioner.

"I've been very discouraged by it," Houser said. "But I believe it is our job to provide the safest environment possible for our students."

He said he thinks the county will eventually be held liable for not having the SROs in place at the middle school level.

Those who dismissed the effort last year stood on two major points of opposition: first, the funding stream used to pay for such officers could leave the county open to sharing some of the money with city school systems; and second, it's not government's place - or sheriff's deputies' place in this case - to keep children in line.

The same arguments emerged again this time around.

Earlier this month, Commissioner Eddie Williams said action and attention from teachers and principles is more of an answer than putting police in schools.

"I don't think we can take police officers and change anything," Williams said. "We can't put all this responsibility on the police."

He said the sight of a law enforcement officer, in uniform and with police car, doesn't have the same effect that it used to have on youth.

"It doesn't do what it used to do when I was out running around - I would try to duck or hide," Williams said.

Spending money isn't going to fix the problem, Williams said.

And Commissioner Howard Patrick said he has worked as a substitute teacher in county schools, and he's not sure what effect SROs have on preventing student fights or drug activity, because he has seen both take place as soon as the SRO officer is out of sight.

According to Houser's resolution, which seeks four new SROs - one each for the county school system's four main zones:

•SROs are a nationally accepted concept with a goal of reducing violence, deterring drug and alcohol use, and a general reduction in juvenile crime.

•SROs are not just "cops on campus," rather they are positive role models who interact with students in a supportive manner; and they perform varied duties at each school, which are based on the needs of the students and teachers at the school where they are assigned.

•An SRO is a certified law enforcement officer who is permanently assigned to provide coverage to a school.

•The SRO is specifically trained to perform three roles: law enforcement officer; law-related counselor; and law-related education teacher.

•The SRO is not necessarily a DARE officer (although many have received such training), security guard, or officer who has been placed temporarily in a school in response to a crisis situation but, rather acts as a comprehensive resource for his/her school.

Houser's resolution cites the following in support of adding the SROs for the county's middle schools:

•Recent incidents of violence and criminal activity occurring on school premises - not limited to high schools, but on middle school campuses.

•SROs in middle schools promote safety and enhance instruction time.

•The presence of an SRO and a law enforcement agency cruiser on a school's premises and the assignment to such a school of an SRO, with the authority to arrest those who violate the law, constitutes a substantial deterrent to violent acts and criminal activity at school.

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