Gov. Haslam outlines comprehensive Tennessee school security plan

Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, is seen at an announcement of the new 5-seat Atlas SUV at Volkswagen Chattanooga on Monday, March 19, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Wade Payne/AP Images for Volkswagen)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says the state will undertake a comprehensive, three-pronged approach to increase safety at schools across Tennessee in response to the deadly Parkland, Fla., shooting that killed 17 people last month.

Haslam made the announcement Wednesday after a working group he formed released its recommendations, which include providing more funding to hire more school resource officers and providing a statewide technology application for anonymous reporting of threats or suspicious activity by students, faculty, staff and others.

The governor wants the plan implemented during the 2018-19 school year. It provides for direct communication among and between individuals reporting threats or activity and state and local law enforcement officials, as well as local school districts.

"All children in Tennessee deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment, and I appreciate the efficient and thorough work of the school safety working group," the governor said in a news release. "The recommendations of the working group, coupled with increased investment, provide a path to making immediate, impactful and unprecedented security improvements in our schools and also lay the groundwork for longer term actions around training, drills and mental health support."

Funding for all initiatives is coming from a $30 million pot of safety grant funds previously announced by the governor. The safety grant includes a one-time, $25 million grant and $5.2 million in recurring grants. The recurring dollars can be coupled with existing funds to provide a total of $10.4 million for initiatives such as school resource officers.

But some lawmakers have already said that's not enough to provide resource officers to all schools. A number of districts, including Hamilton County Schools, don't have SROs in all schools.

Last week, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond told the school board that he could ensure safety at every school in the county, but "it will take money to solve this problem."

In order to add SROS to all 79 schools in the district - only 29 schools now have assigned SROs - it would cost $4 million.

"Even if I had that money tonight, it would be January before I could bring us up to speed," Hammond added, because of the time needed for recruitment and training of additional officers.

Only about half of Tennessee's estimated 1,800 public schools now have at least one resource officer. The Haslam administration presented its budget amendment last week, which provided for the additional $5.2 million in recurring money for costs such as new school resource officers. Some immediately questioned whether it was enough.

Asked about that Wednesday, House Finance Committee Chairman Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said, "I think we will look at that along with a lot of other requests."

He said various members' individual proposals to amend the budget to provide for specific items already total $500 million, while there's only about a $50 million pool available.

"I think that will be one of those we look at, though, and also look into the governor's budget and see if we might want to redirect some of the money he's spent in other areas," McCormick said. " I'd like to see more money in school safety. I think everyone would." But it would have to be considered within the bounds of balancing the proposed budget and "all the other good things we need to spend money on," he added.

Haslam's fellow Republicans in the state House have zeroed in on a proposal to train and arm some teachers, which Haslam doesn't like.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, the Republican governor said he remains opposed to arming teachers.

"We put $30 million toward the [school security effort] effort in this year's budget, which is substantial. So we're hoping there's alternatives besides arming teachers."

Haslam said "my concern with arming teachers is there's very few teachers who want to do it. I haven't heard any law enforcement people say it's a good idea. And I'm afraid that if we put all these conditions in it, we'll sort of be misleading people that we've answered something that we haven't."

The administration funding would boost state-supported school safety grant dollars five-fold to address immediate needs while continued conversations at the state, local and federal around school security and budgeting take place.

The administration says that, although all school districts already have safety plans, this will be the first time the state has led a comprehensive effort to determine the security needs at each individual school.

In this case, risk assessments will be based on model security standards identified by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Assessment training will be provided by state homeland security officials to local school district personnel and first responders.

It was the top priority listed by the governor's working group of educators, law enforcement officials and administration commissioners.

Haslam wants state agencies to complete the assessments before students return to school this fall for the 2018-19 school year.

Local law enforcement and school officials said they did not have enough information yet to comment on Haslam's plan.

Previously, Hamilton County Schools officials have announced some of the efforts the district has made to enhance school security in light of recent incidents. Last week, the board approved nearly a half million dollars for new visitor management and controlled door lock management systems. Hamilton County Schools already reviews emergency plans for each facility annually, according to school officials.

Staff writer Meghan Mangrum contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.