Despite sheriff's reservations, Hamilton County school board votes to hire security officers

Sheriff Jim Hammond said he'd rather the school district arms teachers

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond listens as Mayor Jim Coppinger presents his fiscal year 2020 budget during a budget workshop at Hamilton County's McDaniel Building on Tuesday, June 4, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Coppinger is requesting additional funding for public safety and schools in his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal. / Staff photo by Doug Strickland

The Hamilton County school board has approved hiring school security officers for some campuses despite reservations from the sheriff, who said he would rather see the district arm teachers or school staff members instead.

Sheriff Jim Hammond told the board Thursday night he believes the school district and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office are on the same page as far as ensuring the safety of the county's students but that he's not in favor of the board's idea.

"I think we are missing a valuable resource in being able to fill that stop-gap and at the same time not ruining your budget," he said. "I do believe there is law that supports the idea that you can train teachers to do that job."

The board has been exploring options to increase security at local schools despite ongoing school resource officer staffing struggles.

Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, first proposed hiring off-duty law enforcement officers or private security officers last October.

Though board members, district officials and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office all agree that having a specially trained school resource officer on campus is "the gold standard," board members decided "something was better than nothing," as board chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, characterized the vote.

Hammond said his "particular preference" would be for the board to consider training and arming teachers who volunteered to do so instead. He emphasized that school resource officers would be his top choice, but nine positions that were budgeted for in both department's FY 2020 budget remain vacant.

"As far as I am concerned as sheriff of this county, the right thing is the SRO," Hammond said. "I have money to hire SROs. I just don't have SROs. We are in a difficult time in law enforcement as many others."

Instead, Hammond said it would be more cost-effective to train and supervise school staff to carry firearms on campus, something he said higher education institutions are already doing.

He added that his office and the district could do a pilot program at a single school or schools and ask for volunteers who would like to be trained to carry on school grounds.

Volunteers could be chosen based on "their military background, law enforcement association or their hunting skills and their intimate [familiarity] with firearms and how they operate," Hammond said, and then further trained by the sheriff's office.

"I'm not here to say teachers need one more thing to do. I'm here to say that some teachers would be willing to step up," he added. "Their sole purpose is to be there as an instant responder to a problem while waiting for law enforcement to get there."

Hammond did reassure the board that ultimately he would support whatever the board and Superintendent Bryan Johnson decided to do.

Tennessee law doesn't currently allow teachers to carry a firearm on a public school campus, but a bill to make it legal was introduced during the 2019 legislative session, and the issue is expected to come up among lawmakers again this year.

School board members Jenny Hill, of District 6, and Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, were both quick to disagree with the sheriff.

"I haven't met a single parent that supports that, and as a parent myself, I would never support my child's teacher carrying a gun into the classroom," Robinson said.

Hill echoed Robinson.

"Nine out of 10 people I talk to are horrified by the idea of arming teachers. That's what I hear from parents; that's what I'm hearing from teachers," Hill said. "I have yet to be convinced that more guns in a school make a school a safer place."

The proposal to allow the district to recruit, vet and train up to 10 security officers passed with a 7-1 vote.

Robinson and Hill both voted in favor of the move with board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, of District 5, the lone dissenter.

The security officers will be responsible for patrolling and monitoring school campuses and school buildings, maintaining a visible presence and ensuring external security, but they will not be involved in discipline or counseling students and would not serve the same functions as a school resource officer. Applicants will be required to be Tennessee Peace Officer Standards & Training certified and have firearms training.

Hammond also took a shot at local municipalities' law enforcement agencies when addressing the board Thursday night. He said in his opinion they should also be responsible for helping to fund and provide school resource officers for schools in their jurisdictions.

But it all comes down to money, Hammond said.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, as well as the Chattanooga Police Department, have lamented their struggles to recruit new officers, especially as both departments have come under increased scrutiny as more allegations of police brutality and misconduct have come to light in the past few years.

Hammond blames the economy for the lack of law enforcement recruits.

"It's almost epidemic, the problem, being able to find law enforcement in the community."

When greeting a group of JROTC students from Ooltewah High School at the beginning of Thursday's meeting, Hammond asked if any of the high school students might want to become a police officer.

"You just have to be 18," he said. "I need some officers."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.