As the nation continues to mourn the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., talk about school resource officers — in elementary schools — has cropped up in the Tennessee Valley.
“I would love to have an SRO in every building,” said Dwight Satterfield, safety supervisor for Decatur City Schools.
“I believe that visibility of an officer is a great deterrent.”
Elementary schools make up the bulk of the schools that do not have a trained police officer or deputy on site. School systems place most of their SROs in middle schools, high schools and alternative schools.
Limestone County Superintendent Thomas Sisk said this is of particular concern since Sandy Hook Elementary, the Newtown school where a gunman killed 20 students and six adults before committing suicide, was the only school in that district that didn’t have an SRO.
Lt. Proncey Robertson, who supervised Decatur’s SRO unit for the Police Department, said the emphasis always has been on secondary schools because that’s where most of the problems are.
Robertson said elementary schools’ issues are usually related to domestic and custody disputes.
Decatur and Limestone County Schools lead the area with six SROs each for 18 and 13 schools, respectively. Lawrence County has four SROs for its 13 schools. Hartselle has two for its five schools.
Morgan County has two SROs for 17 schools, but Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said Sheriff Ana Franklin is adding a third for Brewer High and Union Hill School because they are in unincorporated areas.
Hopkins said his schools depend on Sheriff’s Department patrols and town departments such as Priceville, Trinity, Somerville and Falkville for quick response, if needed.
“We just haven’t had the money” to hire more officers, Hopkins said.
Athens is the lone local school system that does not have an SRO. Former Superintendent James Irby and the Athens school board turned down a grant in 2001 to fund SROs. Irby’s reasoning at the time was he didn’t want Athens schools to look like armed camps or jails.
Athens Superintendent Orman Bridges Jr. said he is looking at all security issues, including SROs. The school board gave him permission Thursday to hire a consultant to study these issues.
Bridges met in October to discuss school safety with Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson.
A proponent of school resource officers, Johnson expressed concern this week about whether he has enough patrol officers to adequately protect Athens schools.
SROs have been around since the 1960s. Their number ballooned with the beginning of the federal COPS in Schools grant, a program that began following the Columbine, Colo., school shootings in 1999.
Schools and local governments often shared in this grant program, but federal funding was drastically reduced in 2006.
Robertson said the number of SROs then began to drop when local obligations ran out. The grants required local entities to keep SROs employed for two to three years after federal funding ended.
“When there’s not as much attention on the issue, people begin to feel like school security isn’t an issue and they start cutting SROs,” Robertson said.
For example, Decatur schools and the city partner in funding the SRO program, which costs $230,000 annually. The two split the cost of the program until about four years ago, when the city reduced its participation. Now the school system pays $185,000 of the cost.
School officials hope the national outcry for school safety brings a new emphasis and more funding. Bridges said he and Johnson are looking into the possibility of a grant.
Sisk and Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely are hoping to add eight more SROs at a cost of about $600,000 a year. One SRO costs about $75,000, which includes salary, training and equipment, Blakely said.
Robertson and Johnson said they don’t think a security guard or an officer who isn’t trained as a SRO are viable alternatives. Johnson said the cost wouldn’t be that much more to train an officer as a SRO.
Robertson said SROs provide many benefits in addition to security like campus familiarity, dealing with truancy, providing drug education and keeping school officials informed on public occurrences that might impact the school.
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