Hamilton County commissioner proposes redirecting funds to school district's security officer program

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / David Sharpe is commissioner for District 6. The Hamilton County Commission met in regular session on February 12, 2020.

On a given school day, there are at most 27 school resource officers, or SROs, covering 79 Hamilton County schools.

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe wants to hire more lower level officers to provide broader coverage to students.

"I'm of the opinion that we can do a better job of protecting Hamilton County Schools, and the 44,000 students there within, by creating a department at Hamilton County Schools that would cover every school," Sharpe told the Times Free Press last week.

"When I drop my kids off at school, I want to know that there is someone that gets up every day and their priority is ensuring that our schools are as safe as they can be."

To spread out the county's resources, Sharpe wants to end Hamilton County Sheriff's Office's resource officer program and use that funding, instead, to expand the Department of Education's school security officer program.

A school resource officer is a regularly trained and certified patrol deputy, hired by the sheriff's office, who is assigned to a school through the school resource officer unit.

Resource officers are different from security officers in the fact they are state certified law enforcement officers commissioned by the sheriff's office to work in a school with the authority to make arrests, according to the sheriff's office.

"While some [school security officers] working for the [Hamilton County Department of Education] may be retired [Peace Officer Standards & Training Commission]-certified law enforcement personnel, they do not perform the duties of a POST-certified law enforcement officer, nor do they have arrest authority," sheriff's office spokesman Matt Lea said in an email. "They are also not commissioned by the Sheriff's Office."

"[A school security officer] is basically fulfilling the role of a security guard in the schools. [School resource officers] also teach several specialized trainings to students throughout the year and take an active role in the schools to which they are assigned."

Sharpe on Wednesday called for the county to end the existing school resource officer program and instead cover each of the county's 79 schools with a school security officer.

In an attempt to do that, Sharpe will ask fellow commissioners to vote Wednesday on removing some additional proposed funding for staff positions from the sheriff's office - still leaving the office with a net increase, just removing the budgeted school resource officer positions - and reallocating those funds to the school district.

The commission will vote next week on the move to pluck around $4 million in new funds being given to the sheriff's office in the proposed 2022 budget and move that money to the department of education to fund a security officer for each school.

While the commission does not have line-item veto authority - meaning they cannot specify what program departments can use general funds on - the department of education has agreed to use the funds for the school security officer program, according to communications officer Cody Patterson.

And during the May Hamilton County Board of Education meeting, board member Tucker McClendon introduced a resolution asking the commission to contribute more funding to the district's school security officer program.

SROs and SSOs by the numbers

Number of public schools in Hamilton County? 79 How many SROs are there? 27 and four supervisory positions How many SROs are budgeted? 32 and 5 supervisory positions How many SROs are at schools every day? 27 How many SSOs are there? 10 How many SSOs are budgeted? 10 How many SSOs are at schools every day? 10 Sources: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and Hamilton County Schools

McClendon told the Times Free Press last week that it felt like the right time to introduce the legislation and show where the school board stood on the issue as the district transitioned into summer.

"We're the only major school district in Tennessee that isn't fully covered in our schools, and to me that's just unacceptable and that's why I've been so hard to pushing on it," McClendon said.

In fall 2019, the Times Free Press reported that there were 13 school resource officer vacancies in Hamilton County Schools, and the exact number of officers and which schools had a school resource officer was not made clear. McClendon proposed hiring private security officers in October 2019, and in January 2020, the board voted to recruit and train up to 10 school security officers.

Hammond said Wednesday that removing the program from the sheriff's office would "take some pressure off of" him, but he maintained that the program should continue as is.

Even with unfilled positions, the sheriff said he believes the community would support the school resource officer program.

"I think the public wants the concept of an SRO better than an SSO, because they would like to have a certified police officer in that school," Hammond said Wednesday.

In 2018 and 2019, resource officers made around 200 arrests each year, according to the sheriff's office, something a security officer wouldn't be able to do.

And on Friday, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office said Hammond respected Sharpe's efforts, but did not support ending the SRO program.

"While the Sheriff appreciates Commissioner Sharpe's willingness to present an alternative plan to increase security in our schools, the Sheriff still maintains the best solution would be to have a uniformed, P.O.S.T. certified School Resource Officer in our public schools," Lea wrote.

Ben Connor, a parent with students attending Normal Park Museum Magnet School, said he and parents he knows think supplying schools with school resource officers should be a priority. He said he first became aware that the school didn't have a dedicated SRO last year and learned that many other schools did not have one either.

"Every child needs to be able to learn in a safe school and feel safe and at the end of the day, the elected officials that we have have the funds, the money's there, it's already been allocated, it's just not being used properly to give the kids the safety that they need," Connor said. "It's been proven that having these people in the schools that are dedicated SROs - and I do not mean just a police officer, you need somebody that has the training in suicide prevention and other safety measures for children. That's why the dedicated SRO is such an important issue."

However, he told the Times Free Press on Friday that he supports directing funding toward school security officers instead.

"In my opinion, every student deserves to learn in a safe school, and by that means if we're using the same amount of money, and I have the option to pick somebody who is trained to be an officer of the law first, or the opportunity to pick someone who is being trained to help children first and deescalate situations with students in a school setting, it's an absolute no-brainer to get the safer version for the same money."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.