This story was updated March 22, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.
School safety dominated the conversation at Thursday night's Hamilton County school board meeting, as talk of how to better protect students continues among community leaders here and across the nation after a shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school left 17 dead last month.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond made an appearance at the meeting after board members called for dialogue with him at a work session on March 8. The sheriff already had engaged in conversations with Superintendent Bryan Johnson on a wide range of safety measures, including facilities improvement, adding school resource officers and even arming teachers.
"As your sheriff, I'm committed to the safety of your students," Hammond told the board. "There's a lot of options. I'm not here today to ask you for money, but it will take money to solve this problem."
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Hammond addressed many of the options that have been raised, but he did not specifically advocate for any. Previously, Hammond has stated that arming teachers would not be his "first, second or even third" choice, but he once again acknowledged Thursday that it would be the "least expensive option."
In order to add school resource officers to all 79 schools in the district — only 29 schools now have assigned SROs — it would cost $4 million. And it wouldn't be a quick fix.
"Even if I had that money tonight, it would be January before I could bring us up to speed," Hammond said.
Board members, some of whom were disgruntled they were not privy to Hammond, Johnson and board Chairman Steven Highlander's previous meetings on the topic, thanked the sheriff and acknowledged his guidance was needed.
"In the future, when you have group discussions at your office, I hope it will be an open invitation for our school board to attend those meetings," said board member David Testerman, of District 8. "This is an area that we have to follow you. We need your expertise. We need to follow you."
Board member Joe Wingate, of District 7, echoed the board's need to look to law enforcement for guidance in figuring out the best options to protect the county's students.
"Anyone who sits up here or in that crowd and tells us we know what we need to do, we don't know what we need to do. We haven't had enough time to figure out best practices to keep our children safe," Wingate said. "I promise you it's a top priority for us, and I'm not willing to throw anything off the table yet because I don't know what the best idea is."
Hammond was not the only prominent speaker at Thursday's meeting. Among many speakers from the community were teen representatives from Chattanooga Students Leading Change and Chattanooga scion Franklin McCallie.
"It would be difficult for me to overstate the degree to which I think it would be a mistake to arm teachers," McCallie said, in reference to the topic that Hammond referred to as "the elephant in the room."
"Please consider who profits from putting millions of dollar of guns into Hamilton County Schools," McCallie added, noting that he did not think it was students.
The students also spoke out against Tennessee HB 2208, which would allow districts to arm teachers, calling for the board to take a stance against it, as well as increasing active shooter drills in local schools.
But not every speaker was against the idea of arming teachers.
"The most effective way I believe to protect our students from a shooter is to confront, subdue and neutralize a shooter at the earliest time," said Ron Thomas, a Hamilton County resident, citing data that illustrated that law enforcement often arrived at the scene of a school shooting several minutes after it was over. Thomas encouraged the board look into best practices and best options.
Hammond also announced his intention to bring in a national expert and hold a conversation for elected officials and other community members around the topic in April.
Board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 5, acknowledged the impassioned comments from so many in the community.
"We have a lot of presentations around safety, and we've all stated on our stance on safety. ... I think in the coming months, we as a board will have more concrete plans around safety in our schools. We hear you," she said.
The board also approved nearly a half million dollars for the new Raptor visitor management system the district is rolling out in all schools by April and the installation of a controlled door management system to enhance school safety.
Several board members will attend a statewide summit on school safety next month in Nashville.