This story was updated Feb. 28, 2018, at 11:38 p.m.relatedarticlethumb
NASHVILLE — A bipartisan group of Tennessee lawmakers Wednesday unveiled a bill they said will better secure schools from attacks by diverting a portion of civil-asset forfeiture funds to help pay for more off-duty officers to work as school resource officers.
The proposed School Safety Act of 2018 would provide funding for two officers per school. Officers would have to be certified by the state's Peace Officer Standards Training Commission training program.
"More than ever, our kids are vulnerable to evil people with evil intentions," said Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray, one of a group of military veterans from both parties coming forward with the legislation. "Now's the time for us to come together to protect our babies."relatedarticlethumb
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, a co-sponsor and like Van Huss a former Marine, thanked his colleague for bring the legislation, one of a number of responses to this month's deadly attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and teachers dead.
"This is an example, an example for the country, and I hope that the country takes heed to what we're doing here in Tennessee with this bipartisan approach to ensuring the safety and security of our children and our teachers and all of those who work in our education institutions," Parkinson told reporters.
Sen. Mark Green, R-Ashland City, a former member of the Army's Special Forces and lead Senate sponsor, said the legislation would help resolve part of the funding question that faces local education systems. It's intended as an "emergency response," he said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville, an Army veteran and bill co-sponsor, called it a "common-sense approach."
Under the bill, local education agencies do not have to participate but sponsors said they hope they will. Some local systems, especially in rural areas, have had difficulty finding money to pay for school resource officers.
The bill would use civil-asset forfeiture funds, in which law enforcement can seize assets from people suspected of involvement in illegal activity without always charging them, to pay $54 for each day an off-duty officer works with $50 going to the officer and $4 going toward state and local administrative costs.
Officers would be required to carry loaded handguns, but local systems would determine if they wear uniforms or display the weapons openly. The schools also would be in charge of whether rifles could be used.
Van Huss said if all the estimated 18,000 Tennessee public schools participated, it would cost about $39 million a year. But he noted a number of them may not participate.
Lawmakers acknowledged that civil asset forfeiture laws are controversial — there are several bills to rein in the practice — but the money can help. Van Huss said they also face resistance from local district attorneys general as well as local drug task forces that use the funds to bankroll their operations.
According to multiple news accounts, a school resource officer on duty at the Parkland, Fla., shooting did not enter the school during the attack.
Parkinson was dismissive of the idea that could occur here.
"This is Tennessee, not Florida," he said. "That is, we expect people to run in, not out."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.