Hawkins County sheriff says SROs would be more than 'armed guards'

Jeff Bobo • Jan 6, 2013 at 9:36 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County Sheriff Ronnie Lawson said school resource officers should be more than armed guards, and taxpayers will get their money’s worth if county leaders approved a plan to put a deputy in every county school.

The Hawkins County Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday evening to allocate $300,000 to begin hiring the 15 new deputies it would take to install a certified school resource officer (SRO) in all 19 Hawkins County Schools.

That funding would cover the cost of hiring, training and outfitting deputies through the end of the fiscal year on July 1.

But the funding is also contingent on the Hawkins County Commission making a 100 percent commitment to fund the estimated $725,000 it would cost to maintain those SROs in every school on an annual basis indefinitely.

Lawson said he is in favor of the plan because it would make students safer and ease parents’ minds about the possibility of a Sandy Hook Elementary-type massacre happening here.

But the sheriff said there are also long-term benefits to having an SRO in every school countywide.

Lawson told school board members it would also give his department the manpower to implement regular safety education and anti-drug programs in all 19 Hawkins County Schools and hopefully touch more students at a younger age with positive messages.

“Our SROs are more than armed guards,” Lawson told the Times-News after Thursday’s BOE meeting. “They’ll be directing traffic before and after school. We would be able to implement regular anti-drug programs in every school, regular safety programs and have better outreach into every community in the county.”

Lawson added, “It’s an opportunity for my deputies to be out in the schools on a daily basis and learn more about what’s going on in each community, and how we as a sheriff’s department can better serve those communities. It’s also an opportunity for students to have a police officer in their lives at an early age putting out positive messages, and hopefully having long-term positive affects on those children’s lives.”

Lawson told the BOE that even if he started immediately it wouldn’t be possible to implement an SRO program in all 19 county schools before the beginning of the 2013-14 school year in August. Finding a permanent funding solution for the program might take that long as well.

County Commissioner Gary Hicks, who chairs the commission’s Budget Committee, told the Times-News on Sunday there are a couple of questions that need to be answered before the commission will be able to commit to funding the SRO program.

For example, will the Tennessee General Assembly address SROs in the upcoming session, and if so, will there be funding attached to help cover the cost of new officers.

Based on discussions between the BOE and the commission’s Education Committee on Thursday, a 10-cent property tax increase would be needed to cover the recurring annual $725,000 expenditure.

“I think before we can make any final decisions on funding we need an opportunity to take a close look at our budget and figure out how much of that cost we can absorb without draining our (reserve) fund balance down to a dangerous level,” Hicks said. “Rep. (Mike ) Harrison has said there’s a possibility of some state funding for SROs and we need to find out what they’re going to do in Nashville.”

Hicks is employed as technology director at the Rogersville City School, which placed an SRO in its school upon returning from the Christmas break last week. He said that SRO gives him and other staff and faculty at RCS peace of mind, and that’s something that every school in Hawkins County deserves.

“Anytime you talk about a tax increase you can expect controversy to follow, but I think there are a lot of people in our communities who would be willing to pay a little extra to ensure that our schools are safe,” Hicks said. “Having said that, I think that if we take a close look at the budget we might be able to do this with a minimal impact on the property tax rate, especially if the state decides to chip in some.”

Although the Sandy Hook massacre has placed school safety on the political front burner, it’s not a new subject at Hawkins County Schools, which have implemented safety procedures dating back to the 1990s.

For example, doors at every school in Hawkins County are locked and monitored by video and require visitors to be buzzed in by someone in the main office.

There are currently five SROs in Hawkins County, including full-time officers at Clinch, Volunteer and Cherokee; one who splits the day between Church Hill and Surgoinsville middle schools; and one who splits the day between Bulls Gap and Rogersville Middle.

Director of Schools Charlotte Britton told the board during Thursday’s meeting that Hawkins County Schools continues to take proactive steps toward making schools safe, involving parents on school safety committees, updating safety plans and requiring all school personnel to receive annual safety training.

“We have had law enforcement walk through all our schools and review their safety plans along with school personnel,” Britton said. “We have safety drills at each school level. We’re listening to our parents’ concerns, and I would stress a school watch, just like we have a neighborhood watch, so that parents will also report to us any type of unusual activity they view on the school grounds.”

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