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NASHVILLE — In a state that has just 865 school resource officers tasked with protecting an estimated 1 million students, Tennessee has double the national rate of kids caught bringing a gun or possessing one at school.

That sobering statistic and others were shared Thursday by state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as Gov. Bill Haslam's working group on school safety got underway.

Haslam created the group this week with the goal of developing recommendations for the governor and state lawmakers to act on in the wake of the latest school shooting, this one at a Parkland, Fla., high school where 17 people, including students and faculty, died last month. The General Assembly is expected to adjourn in mid-April.

The goal is to improve school safety in areas ranging from better cooperation between educators and law enforcement to providing help to students with problems and improved control of school entrances and exits.

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Candice McQueen
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
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McQueen said the rate of Tennessee students caught bringing a gun to school or possessing one was 7.5 per 100,000 students in the 2015/2016 school year, versus a national average of 3.1.

Moreover, the percentage of state students in grades nine through 12 who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property was 10.2, versus a national average of 6 percent. Tennessee ranked close to Arkansas, which had the nation's highest percentage at 10.6.

"Tennessee is generally on the high end," McQueen explained to fellow members of the 16-person panel.

And the percentage of Tennessee high school students who said they had skipped school because they didn't feel safe shot up from 5 percent in 2011 to 9.3 percent by 2015. Last year, the annual survey of about 20,000 students in participating districts showed the number falling to 8.1 percent.

Many rural districts can't afford to pay for SROs, and officials in Hamilton County say there aren't enough. That's led to state lawmakers offering legislation to pay volunteer law enforcement $50 a day to help out. And Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, is moving controversial legislation that would arm willing educators with training.

Byrd, a working group member, moved the bill through one subcommittee earlier in the week but has agreed to hold off for several weeks to see what recommendations are made. He said his preference would be more state money to pay for school resource officers.

In starting the meeting, Haslam told members not to get sidetracked by "hot button" political issues surrounding the subject and focus instead of getting "to the root" of weaknesses and appropriate responses.

"We are not alone in this, and what I really want is your very best efforts not only from the perspective you have but also just as somebody who cares about our state to get to the root where we can push the whole political discussion aside and get to the heart of the thing."

Speaking later with reporters, the governor said the group has a "critical task but also one that's complex. The whole country is trying to figure out what to do about school safety."

He noted that statistics on issues such as harassment "showed us on the wrong side of the curve, if you will, not the highest in the country, but they're all things that are part of the reality of the school situation we want to deal with."

Task No. 1 is "to prevent the horrific event that happened in Parkland," the governor said. "But we also want to just address overall day-to-day safety and make sure we're doing everything to get there."

On students' feelings about their own safety, the governor said he wasn't sure whether their opinions were a result of what they learn at home, or rather what they learn from media coverage of mass shootings.

"But there's no doubt that students today, if you went to them, [and said] do you feel secure in school, they'd say 'a lot less so than I used to.' And that's part of the reality we have to deal with."

As for additional school resource officers, the governor said, "I think one of the questions they're going to look at is 'What's the most effective way to set that up?' When you start multiplying that by large numbers in every school in the state, obviously you're starting to talk about some real dollars."

So, he said, one of the tasks the group will take on is to consider possibilities and "then what are the fiscal implications of that, as well?"

The group hopes to wrap up its work by March 22. Haslam said he hopes that will give him time to bring legislation and make adjustments to his proposed budget.

"It's not only critical, but it's a hard task, right?" he said of the stated goal. "Figuring out how we can afford it but also what are the right precautions in everything from how you lock down schools so we can get the people we want out of the building but not the people we don't want in there."

There's "hard and practical problems."

The governor also noted that, while he would like to have a package of measures ready for lawmakers before they adjourn, he has no issue with calling a special legislative session if necessary.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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