BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson agrees with members of a county school system security task force that school resource officers are not the be-all and end-all of school safety.
However, he said they are a vital part of security and that he still would like to have an SRO at every county school facility, although the price tag might be steep for the county.
The task force, an advisory group to Director of Schools Jubal Yennie that held its first public meeting March 5, has outlined a comprehensive strategy involving behavioral threat assessment, school culture and climate, physical threat assessment and security personnel.
The sheriff in a recent interview said the four-pronged approach is excellent and that the physical threat assessment is important because it checks things like secured doors and buzz-in entrances using cameras.
“The physical security of a building is important. That’s probably as important as having an officer in there,” Anderson said. But the sheriff said he still hopes the four SROs at high schools will expand in the county, even if not to all schools or school facilities. He said the behavioral program teaching school personnel to be on the lookout for behaviors that could be signs of potential future violence is important, too, as is school culture and climate.
“A behavioral assessment does not make students feel safer at a school,” Anderson said in a recent interview. “A police officer at a school does.”
Yennie said the school board is on record supporting SROs, security and law enforcement in the schools, and he said the sheriff’s office already has stepped up its deputy presence in county schools.
“We think the personnel part is important, too,” Yennie said.
Anderson said his cost estimate from earlier this year is that adding 18 SROs — one for every elementary and middle school — would cost about $1.3 million the first year and have a recurring cost of $850,000 a year after that.
The four current officers are funded half and half by the county and school system. No specific funding proposal or formula has been developed for additional SROs but they might follow the same funding formula, Anderson said.
In neighboring Washington County, the County Commission’s Budget Committee Thursday delayed action on a proposal to have 10 SROs in that county system at an estimated cost of $1.4 million.
In Sullivan, Anderson said that used but late-model vehicles, uniforms, training and firearms are part of the expanded SRO start-up cost and that he’d like to see the officers become “precinct” or “zone” officers based in a school but available for other needs in the immediate community.
He also said that if the county commission could fund fewer positions, the new SROs could be based at middle schools but also serve nearby elementary schools.
“All of the schools are placed in strategic areas,” Anderson said, adding that the SROS can take tips from children, parents and community members about criminal activities in the school as well as greater community.
In addition, in the summer and when school was not in session, he said the officers could be used to service process. Of about 26,000 process papers a year, he said only 16,000 get served by deputies, constables and private process servers.
As an example, Anderson cited the 2012 activities of Sullivan South High School SRO Jeff McKittrick.
It showed eight arrests, two citations, 12 custodies — usually where a student is taken into custody and released to a parent instead of being taken to a juvenile detention facility — 66 incidents and serving four warrants. Multiplying that by four for the four high schools would mean 368 SRO actions per year or 5,520 over 15 years.