published Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Why do we have to choose at all?

Last year, there was a shooting near The Howard School.

It was off campus.

Last week, there was a shooting near Hamilton County High. The shooter?

He had been on campus.

"It's only getting closer and closer to inside the school," said Sgt. Eric Merkle.

Merkle and his partner Sgt. Paul Maupin work within the School Resource Officer program for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. They both realize the urgency of getting resource officers inside every single school -- elementary, middle and high.

"It's a matter of when, not if, that type of violence comes inside," Merkle said.

When, not if. SROs therefore are the proactive remedy: on campus, forming relationships, educating, mentoring, listening.

"They're in classrooms, checking and securing the campus, building invaluable relationships with kids," said Maupin.

Every school in Rutherford County has an SRO. Here in Hamilton County, we have 35 elementary schools. And how many have SROs?

"Zero," said Sheriff Jim Hammond. "None."

So why don't we have them in every school?

"Money," one county commissioner said last week.

A federal grant will soon fund eight new SROs through the sheriff's budget; those officers will be hired and trained by August, Hammond said, bringing our total to 28 SROs working in middle and high schools.

It's not enough.

"Something has to be done," said Hamilton County Board of Education member Donna Horn. "We have to figure out a way to get this funding."

Merkle estimates it would cost about $5 million to put a resource officer in every school, a cost that includes up-front equipment and training ... and would therefore decrease each year. Not long ago, Merkle did the math.

"That's 59 cents a student a day," Merkle said.

Fifty-nine cents.

"It's time for this to be more than a discussion," said Superintendent Rick Smith.

Can the city fund more SROs in its urban schools? Will school PTAs raise funds to hire officers? Are we the people willing to consider a property tax increase?

To cobble $5 million together to fund SROs is to put money behind a belief: that SROs will decrease violence while increasing the security and health of our schools.

But SROs aren't the only ones that can do that.

"We need $2.2 million to have art teachers in every elementary school," said Jonathan Welch, school board member.

It's a fascinating question: which position -- SRO or art teacher -- would do more in reducing violence and negativity in our schools? Does one have a greater anti-violence effect than the other?

SROs yield both an immediate and physical benefit. Their badge and all it represents is a uniformed message to students each day. They carry guns with very real bullets; you can't watercolor your way to stopping a school shooter. No one dials 911 and prays an art teacher answers.

Yet art teachers have a power that police officers don't. Arts transform and transcend, both of which are complete antidotes to the attraction of violence.

The arts are an investment in the soul of our kids, who so desperately need to be immersed, like a baptism, into the world of the arts which can provide a constructive outlet for the whirlwind of emotions within teenage life.

And armed with colors and images and ideas march the art teachers, and were we not so afraid of the arts -- give us STEM or give us reality TV! -- we'd see how negligent it is when our children are not taught how to make and interpret art. How to breathe from it. How to fall in love with it.

So should $5 million go to SROs or art teachers? Welch made sure I understood how much he supported and believed in an SRO presence, yet ...

"I'd choose the art teachers," Welch said. "The culture of the school changes when arts are involved."

The tremendous sadness is that this question even exists. Our school budget is not the Hunger Games, where otherwise good people have to kill each other off in order to survive to the next round of funding.

Why do we fund our kids with a scavenger-esque mentality: a little here, a little there? Why do we even have to choose between the majestic influence of art teachers and the heroic and powerful presence of an SRO?

This either-or question itself is a form of violence as well.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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VisaDiva said...

I understand the positive effect of SROs in schools in fostering relationships with students, but if they are really to protect in an emergency is there any reason to believe they would be in the right place at the right time to twart violence? Are they as critical in elementary schools as art? Can't we compromise and have both?

January 21, 2014 at 10:50 a.m.
volsam said...

David, The Government, either Federal, State, or local can't be everything to everybody. Choices have to be made as to how the money pie is split. You can't give big salary's and huge benefits to city employee's and their families ( married or not ), rebuild the river front, fight gangs, support the over bloated art projects, and have SRO's in every school in the city. Not enough money to be everything to everybody. I think a little common sense should be used in budget decisions, especially when your spending other peoples money.

January 21, 2014 at 7:29 p.m.
jesse said...

^^^^^^^^ exactly!! It's known as facing reality!!

January 22, 2014 at 10:58 a.m.
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