Williamson Co. rushes through plan to add SROs to every elementary school in county

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 8:05pm
By Kerri Bartlett, City Paper correspondent
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(Illustration by Nicole Dudka)

 

With the hiring process under way at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office — including more than 100 applicants, eight interviews a day and 20-plus new police cars in line to receive their stripes — student resource officers are coming soon to all elementary schools in Williamson County.

After the Sandy Hook incident in Newtown, Conn., leaders in Williamson County rushed a resolution by the following week for the funding of student resource officers for all elementary schools in the county.

“Sandy Hook was a game-changing impetus that made us re-examine the way we look at school safety,” said superintendent Mike Looney, a retired Marine, who was instrumental in the expedited move. When he heard of the tragedy, he said he immediately began reviewing the Williamson County school district’s safety plans and collaborating with local law enforcement and government officials about placing SROs in elementary buildings. Currently SROs are present only in middle and high schools in the county.

“It is more uncommon to have SROs in elementary schools,” said Kelli Gauthier, Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman, though the state does not currently track how schools use state funds toward officers.

When the county’s mayor, Rogers Anderson, presented the $2.5 million resolution for the funding of SROs in January, he told the county commissioners, “We must protect our county’s greatest resource, the young people in our school buildings.”

The now-approved measure includes the funding of 32 SROs for the county’s elementary schools — 24 for Williamson County Schools and eight for the Franklin Special School District. In addition to salary and benefits, operational costs for the first year of implementation include vehicles, uniforms, other necessary equipment and training. Approximately $2.1 million will cover the officers’ salary and benefits annually thereafter.

At the county commission meeting in January, Commissioner Greg Davis expressed his concern about moving forward with “an almost $3 million resolution without research or study” and with the uncertainty of how to fund the officers annually over the long term. “We don’t have the funding stream,” Davis said. “It’s an ongoing expense. There’s a possibility that this could require a tax increase, so we need to be totally open about it now and consider our options before committing to the funding.”

Davis was the lone vote against the resolution. “I am for protecting children. However, I think that we are rushing into it,” he said.

Although the county might have to think about creative ways to fund the 32 officers in the future, applying for federal and state grants has been discussed. Currently, county general funds and a $100,000 Safe Schools grant fund existing officers.

Anderson said, “The two main questions have always been, ‘Do we think we need the officers?’ and, ‘How are we going to fund them?’ ” Ultimately, the full commission voted a resounding yes to the first question.

But Davis said he would have liked to review suggestions from the safety consultant — Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Haven International, whom the county hired in January, before funding decisions were made. Dorn is visiting county schools this week to review safety procedures and to recommend improvements in both districts. The county commission approved a $40,000 resolution to bring Dorn to the county for his assessment.

Davis also pointed out that in his 11 years as a commissioner, the body has never moved so quickly on a major expenditure. But officials said the swift movement is not representative of a rash decision. “This has been a three-year-old conversation,” said Looney.

Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long said previously, “When Dr. Looney was hired as superintendent, one of our first conversations was developing a safety plan for the district. One of my worst fears is having a school incident.” He explained that research on violent events like Columbine show that Williamson County’s location outside of the city, high socioeconomic demographic, and population numbers fit the profile.

Over the past three years, Looney and Long have collaborated to make emergency plans and procedures more ironclad by installing sophisticated surveillance systems in schools and providing extensive training with local law enforcement, first responders and school staff. Hiring SROs for all elementary schools just seemed to be another step in the process, said Looney.

The responsibility of hiring the team of officers rests on the shoulders of the sheriff and his staff. Long said it’s a rigorous process, but he is focused on delivering results as quickly as possible.

“We are consumed,” Long said. “It’s a full-time job. It’s our Number 1 priority.” Twenty new police cars just arrived and are awaiting stripes and equipment for the new officers when hired. Because the office also has internal applicants, new officers must be hired to fill those vacancies, as well.

“It’s a domino effect,” Long said. “Although we are working as quickly as we can, we are not going to rush. We want the right people for these important positions.”

Long said he cannot say exactly when the officers will be placed in schools. He explained that to qualify, officers must enjoy working with children and have excellent communication skills. Applicants must be certified police officers with experience patrolling the streets. A psychological evaluation will be conducted, as well as additional SRO training. “This is the most important hire since I’ve been sheriff,” he said.

Capt. Alan Laney, Williamson County crime prevention division commander and SRO supervisor, said SROs came to Williamson County high schools in 1999 and middle schools in 2005, with a purpose of educating students about making safe choices through the D.A.R.E. drug prevention program and identifying students who might be falling through the cracks.

An officer with the sheriff’s office for 25 years and the county’s first D.A.R.E. officer, Laney said he witnessed firsthand the impact that SROs can make on students. “Being an SRO is not only about security but about being a resource for children. One of the leading principles of SROs is not only to protect children but also to be someone who they can turn to. Kids will open up to our officers,” Laney said, and that includes confiding about issues such as abuse, date rape and illegal activity.

A few years ago Laney was instrumental in leading an investigation in Williamson County Schools that involved a student’s intent to bring a gun to school. Because another student reported it to an SRO, the gun was retrieved from underneath the student’s mattress, Laney said. “There are many stories that relate to SROs preventing crime and tragedy in schools,” he added.

National statistics seem to mirror the sentiment. Dorn said student surveys have shown that SROs are among the most trusted adults in a school building and have been instrumental in preventing suicide, bullying and other violent acts in schools.

At a recent meeting of the county commission’s Education Committee, Dorn reported, “SROs are more than just gunmen, they are there to build relationships with the students. It’s important not to get too focused on incidents like Sandy Hook. SROs go beyond that, such as addressing child custody issues and enhancing the learning climate by providing protection to the children they serve.

“Having a safety consciousness in school makes students feel protected, knowing that they can say, ‘There is someone here who has my back while I’m learning,’ ” Laney said.