Gov. Bill Lee announces increase in funding for Tennessee school safety, school resource officers

Gov. Bill Lee announces increase in funding for Tennessee school safety, school resource officers

February 21st, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Breaking News

Updated at 9:25 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, with more information.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is calling for an increase in funding for school safety and prioritizing the presence of school resource officers.

Lee proposed an additional $30 million investment for the school safety grant fund established by former Gov. Bill Haslam last year, bringing the total available funds to $40 million.

Legislation also has been filed that will provide additional changes to existing law to prioritize the distribution of the grants to pay for school resource officers.

"The safety of our children and teachers is a top priority for my administration, and this investment ensures that school districts will have the resources they need to better protect our schools," Lee said in a news release.

In 2018, in response to a call for safer schools from lawmakers and educators alike, Haslam established a task force to outline a comprehensive safety plan for the state's schools.

About 500 Tennessee schools now do not have resource officers, according to Lee's office, and changes to current law could enable districts to more easily fill vacancies.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson said he was encouraged by the potential to increase the number of resource officers in the district's schools.

Only 31 Hamilton County schools now have an SRO, with most elementary schools in the district going without one.

"School safety and increasing the presence of [resource officers] on school campuses is a priority of everyone involved in school safety," Johnson said in a statement. "We look forward to learning how the funds will be appropriated to local school districts by the state and determining how we can best use the resources to enhance school safety."

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, which provides most of the county's officers, would welcome further funding for more officers, according to an email from spokesman Matt Lea.

"The HCSO would be appreciative and supportive of any increased funding from the State of Tennessee that could be used in Hamilton County to support both the [Hamilton County Sheriff's Office] and the [Hamilton County Department of Education's] continued efforts to keep our children and schools safe," Lea said.

Johnson allocated an additional $500,000 for school resource officers in the district's budget last year, but Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said it would cost an additional $4 million, approximately, to place an officer in every school in Hamilton County alone.

Lee's proposal also accommodates underserved counties working to secure schools and fill SRO positions by adjusting limited match requirements to be proportional to districts' fiscal capacity, according to the release. The new funding plan would also enable schools that already have an SRO to pursue grants to fund other safety priorities such as developing violence prevention programs or beefing up building security.

"While we are providing resources for additional security measures for our schools, districts need to also consider programming that identifies students who are in need of intervention," Lee added. "Security is paramount, but we must also double down on efforts to identify harmful situations before they arise."

The Department of Safety and Homeland Security and the Department of Education will jointly oversee programming and grant funds while providing threat assessment tools, according to the release.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.


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