While Lee County school leaders in neighboring Southwest Virginia last week decided to arm teachers, Tennessee law doesn't allow that option. Lee County school officials said they simply couldn’t afford SROs for the schools there, would provide firearms and training for teachers who agreed to carry them and would not publicly identify which teachers are carrying.
Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes said Monday that in the discussions and vote to delay the contract bid vote on the new West Ridge High School the SROs appropriation discussion got lost. The school system’s share of the first-year cost is $358,400 and is included in the proposed budget the school board approved at a called meeting July 12. The County Commission must approve the school budget and the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office budget containing another $358,400 in SRO funding for the new officers to be hired.
Hughes said the money for the positions this year came from the fund balance but “it will be an ongoing cost next year” out of the operating budget.
Tennessee lawmakers in 2016 approved a law allowing full-time faculty and staff at public colleges and universities to carry firearms, affecting Northeast State Community College and East Tennessee State University, among others.
However, a bill that would allow select teachers in K-12 schools to carry firearms failed in the General Assembly this year.
The proposed 2018-19 budget the Board of Education recommended Thursday night included the school system's 50 percent funding for 14 additional SROs beyond the four already in place at each county high school. The Sheriff's Office would pay the other 50 percent cost. The resolution for that funding is sponsored by Commissioner Angie Stanely and co-sponsored by Commissioner Matthew Johnson and is set for second and final reading at the Aug. 20 commission meeting.
In August 2010, Sullivan Central SRO Carolyn Gudger, now at Sullivan East, encountered a man armed with two pistols at Central. No students, staff or law enforcement were hurt during the standoff Gudger had with Charles Cowan, but Gudger and other sheriff’s deputies fired on Cowan, who died on his way to a hospital.
Hughes said that the additional 14 officers will be enough to get SROs in all school buildings with students but not necessarily for each individual school. For instance, Holston Elementary, Holston Middle and Innovation Academy are in the same building, and Blountville Elementary and Middle share a cafeteria and campus. When the new Sullivan East Middle and West Ridge are completed, set in 2019 and 2020, respectively, a series of middle schools will be closed and students moved to the former South and East high schools. Sullivan North has been sold to Kingsport for use as a city middle school.
Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said city school officials have not discussed arming teachers.
"This is not something that has been discussed here," True said, although the school system has four armed school resource officers, two assigned to Dobyns-Bennett High School and one each to Sevier and Robinson middle schools. The school system pays the entire cost of the four SROs, although they are Kingsport Police Department employees. Likewise, the county SROs are Sheriff’s Office employees.