Hamilton County school board set to hire more school security officers

Staff photo by Tim Barber / School Resource Officer P. Soyster, right, talks with 12th grade senior Michael Wright in the hallway following the final lunch period Wednesday at Central High School in Harrison.
photo School Resource Officer P. Soyster, right, talks with 12th grade senior Michael Wright in the hallway following the final lunch period Wednesday at Central High School in Harrison.

The Hamilton County Board of Education voted Thursday to move forward with hiring nine more student security officers or SSOs at area schools, which would nearly double the number of SSOs in the district from 10 to 19.

After hours of discussion, the Hamilton County Commission passed its 2022 budget at its Wednesday meeting. The budget provides funding for 32 school resource officer positions through the sheriff's office and 19 SSO positions through the school district. SSOs are paid less and do not have the authority to make arrests.

Justin Robertson, chief operations officer for the schools, told the county commission at its Wednesday meeting that the district would need to hire 25 more SSOs for full coverage, and he told the school board Thursday the request for those positions could be made depending on the availability of excess tax revenue and the county commission's approval.

"This is a request that if the county commission provides additional funding, we can hire up to 25 more," Robertson said.

School board member Marco Perez of Signal Mountain went to the county commission meeting and said he was optimistic about the outcome of the conversation.

"There isn't this tension and division, there is a desire to figure out how we best protect and keep all our students safe, and there seems to be a willingness to a degree on allowing both parties to maximize to the best of their efforts, whichever method works the best," Perez said.

Board member Karitsa Jones of Lake Hills said she hopes that the sheriff's office will fill all the SRO positions but said she was concerned about the safety of students in the meantime and holding the sheriff's office accountable for filling positions that have been open for years.

"I have faith and I hope the best, but I am just very concerned about the safety of our children. I don't care what color they are, what their mamas and daddies believe at home, I just want them safe, because in three years my baby will be in one of those buildings, and I don't want whoever is going to replace [Sheriff Jim] Hammond next year to be still promising me - even if I'm not sitting here - some SROs, because I want my kid's building to have an SRO or an SSO, and if we can't get an SRO, then all of them need SSOs," Jones said.

The district currently employs 10 SSOs, while the sheriff's office employs 27 SROs and four supervisors for a total of 37 officers among the district's 79 schools. The Times Free Press requested last week records from Hamilton County Schools and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office for school placements of SROs and SSOs as of last year.

Neither department provided the information, citing an exemption to the state's open records law that pertains to school safety plans. The Times Free Press responded that the newspaper is seeking records from last year, not plans for next year, and the departments still would not release the records.

A speaker briefly addressed the school board and offered a third option that the board did not discuss during the meeting, which was met with some applause from community members.

Jeremy Dickson of Tennessee Protective Services said the company wanted to offer protection officers to the school system, and that the organization has insurance and training to protect students, teachers and facilities. He said any liability would fall on Tennessee Protective Services, not the school district.

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