This story was corrected at 11:50 a.m. Oct. 2, 2019, to reflect that one of the two students receiving texts was 10 years old. Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett on Wednesday clarified his Tuesday statement that the students were teens.
A Marion County, Tennessee, school resource officer has resigned from his job amid an internal investigation into texts he was exchanging with two students, ages 10 and 14, officials said.
"We had two sets of parents complain that he was texting their [children] after hours," Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said Tuesday of a complaint filed about three weeks ago about the SRO at Jasper Middle School.
Burnett said there was "nothing inappropriate" in the text messages to the two students, it was just that there had been so many texts that the students' parents became concerned.
"If there was anything inappropriate, I'd have turned it over to TBI," Burnett said.
Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith confirmed Tuesday that the SRO was no longer working at the school, but said he only had secondhand details on the incident. Griffith said he was unaware of any other issues involving that SRO, whom the Times Free Press will not name because he is not charged with a crime.
Burnett said the texts in question appeared to be simple conversation.
"It was all general conversation texts, like 'Hey, I saw you and your mom today. How are y'all doing?' That kind of thing," Burnett said.
"The parents didn't think he should be doing that, and I agree, but I want to stress that there was nothing inappropriate in any of the texts. It was just a lot of it was after hours at night after school was over," he said. Burnett said the SRO told him he felt he'd done nothing wrong and that he was only "a friend" to the students.
"I just didn't think it was a proper thing for him to be doing," the sheriff said. "I don't think there was enough there to terminate him, and I didn't terminate him.
"You've got to think about perception nowadays; you can't do that," Burnett said. "In this day and time, that's not good judgment and I didn't feel like he could go back to the school so I offered him a job on patrol, and he thought about it a day or two and then he resigned."
The sheriff said the investigation has concluded with no findings of criminal wrongdoing. Attempts to reach the former resource officer for comment were unsuccessful.
Marion's SRO program was expanded in April 2018 with the addition of seven new officers to fully staff all schools in the system. Several years ago, the board approved a school resource officer for each of the South Pittsburg, Whitwell and Jasper areas in the county, but those three officers covered multiple elementary, middle and high schools at the same time. In June 2018, the program got seven new patrol cars for each of the new resource officers.
Burnett said the officer who resigned was a new officer hired last year. A new, female resource officer is on duty now at the school, he said.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.