Eight officers to be added to Hamilton County Schools

Eight officers to be added to Hamilton County Schools

December 12th, 2013 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Schools will be getting a bit more law and order -- but officials say they could use more.

Hamilton County Commissioners approved a $1 million U.S. Department of Justice grant last week to help pay for eight additional school resource officer positions under Sheriff Jim Hammond over the next three years.

The grant will bring the county's total SRO count to 28, including two Chattanooga Police Department officers -- one at The Howard School and one at Brainerd High School.

Hammond said the new SROs would first be sent to schools that have lost officers in the past through retirement, budget cuts or other means. Extras would then be sent to the schools that "are having the most trouble," he said.

"We've been in the process of evaluating all the schools. We'll look at the stats from last year and see which schools had the most calls for service," Hammond said. "Going forward, I would like to see us cover more schools."

According to Lt. Shawn Shepherd, who leads the SRO program for Hammond, at first look the two schools with the greatest need are Red Bank Middle and Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. Shepherd could not provide figures for the numbers of arrests or calls for service at the schools, but he said those are not the only factors that play into his recommendations.

School population size, the number of SRO consultations with students, teachers or parents, emerging crime issues and other safety issues come into play, he said.

"We came to those conclusions for a lot of factors. It's not just about calls for service. ... We've always worked in partnership with the central office to try to come up with the best recommendation we could with the resources we have," Shepherd said.

The schools that are getting officers back are Washington Alternative, Sequoyah High School, East Ridge Middle School, Ooltewah Middle School, Dalewood Middle School and Lookout Valley Middle/High .

But there will still be six Hamilton County middle or high schools -- most of them magnets -- without officers, he said.

The Center for Creative Arts, Tyner Middle Academy, Normal Park Upper, the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, Soddy-Daisy Middle School and Hamilton High School will remain unmanned.

Aside from policing the halls, SROs work to prevent crimes by building relationships with students. They teach classes on alcohol and drug prevention. In the past, sheriff officials have said SROs are the only branch of law enforcement that is preventative in nature, not reactionary. And generally parents, teachers and administrators like having a law enforcement presence at schools.

Shepherd said often SROs are the only law enforcement officers teens encounter in a positive environment. That can make a big difference for a child being tempted by a gang or contemplating other bad decisions.

He says SROs are police -- but they are also educators, life advisers and mentors for students.

"We want to get ahead of the game. The whole concept of SRO is being proactive," Shepherd said. "We are trying to head problems before they become issues, so students don't have to enter the juvenile justice system."

Shepherd would like to see SROs in every middle and high school -- and even in elementary schools for education. But that can't happen without a lot of funding.

Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he's glad the SROs are being added.

"Obviously, any addition of SROs is a good thing. We certainly appreciate the fact that the sheriff, his staff and the county commission have approved the grant," Smith said.

But Smith said he'd also like to see full coverage.

"So of course, eight won't do that," he said. "It won't give us enough to have one at each middle and high school.

Still, he said he's enthused by the sheriff putting officers in schools that lost them.

"Probably anywhere that had an SRO deserved one and needs one," he said. "I think that would be a good start."

The grant will pay a large portion of salaries, equipment and other needs for the officers, but county taxpayers will put up another $1.3 million to cover other costs and the cost to keep the officers on for a fourth year.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.