Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond to talk to board about improving school security

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks during a mayor's roundtable hosted by U.S. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann at the EPB building in downtown Chattanooga.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond is scheduled to speak with members of the Hamilton County Board of Education today as state and federal legislators consider how to improve school security.

Hammond is planning to discuss several issues, including local safety concerns and possible funding opportunities from federal, state and local sources to increase training and safety measures for active shooter situations.

He briefed Hamilton County commissioners Wednesday about his ongoing communications with federal and state authorities and what he'll say to the school board.

Hammond said he's not optimistic the county will win a third federal grant to pay for school resource officers (SRO), but said he's going to "put more pressure on the city and the school board" to kick in money for more trained officers. The sheriff's office has 31 SROs in 29 local schools, plus two paid for by the city of Chattanooga. Getting an officer into all 79 would cost $4 million, he added.

The sheriff told commissioners that 100 years ago the No. 1 killer of children in school was fire. Communities learned how to build schools that wouldn't burn, to install fire safety equipment, and to drill students and teachers in evacuation techniques.

"Today, that's no longer an issue," Hammond said. "We can do that with shooters but we've got to be willing to pay the price using physical security and trained, armed protection."

"I can protect any school you give me if you give me the budget. I could make a Fort Knox out of the schools, but that's not practical," Hammond said.

He said asking or requiring teachers to be armed isn't what he prefers, but he added, "more than half the [local] schools have armed teachers - they don't ask and they don't tell."

But, Hammond said, the greatest need and greatest deterrent is to have school counselors who spend their time working with students and can identify troubled kids and try to get help for them. He said schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson has acknowledged that "he's aware of" the need for counselors to work with children rather than focus on testing and assessments.

Hammond said his office will also be following developments surrounding Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed $30 million budget amendment to bolster school security statewide. Haslam has appointed a School Safety Working Group that will provide recommendations over the coming days.

Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriff's Association, said he shares Hammond's opinion that officials should focus on placing school resource officers in schools to protect students.

"We believe in protecting these children. We're the ones who have been in this business for 200 years," he said. "Our priority is there should be a trained law officer in school. A best-trained person is the right person."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.