More than a dozen Hamilton County schools that are supposed to have school resource officers this year don't.
Due to widespread vacancies and recruitment challenges for both the Chattanooga Police Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, as well as four current school resource officers who are going on leave soon, Hamilton County Schools has 13 resource officer vacancies.
Superintendent Bryan Johnson told the Hamilton County school board Monday night that he is going to ask the board to consider offering a $2,000 sign-on bonus for new officers in order to get them into the schools.
"One of the things we have identified is the need to continue to tighten our student security supports," Johnson said. "We'll have approximately 13 schools that won't have a level of coverage — and it's just a situation where we are trying to keep our campuses as secure and as safe as possible."
Resource officers serve a variety of roles in local schools. Though they don't dole out discipline, many patrol the schools, meet with students who might be having personal challenges or struggles, serve as mentors and and guest speakers in school classrooms.
They are also schools' first line of defense and respond to emergency situations and threats on campuses.
In 2018, Johnson committed $500,000 of the school district's annual general operating budget for five to seven resource officers in an effort to have at least one stationed at every middle and high school in the county.
As of August 2018, though, only one in three public schools in the county had a school resource officer and there were 11 vacancies.
Typically, the sheriff's office pays for hiring, training and equipping the officers, in part thanks to state or federal grants. The sheriff's office was given an additional $5 million in the county's FY 2020 budget to increase officer pay, but law enforcement in the area still struggles to recruit and retain enough officers.
The process to become a school resource officer can be extensive. Applicants are required to have at least two years of law enforcement experience and, if the applicant is from outside the department, the process includes an interview, background check, psychological evaluation, fitness tests, a minimum of eight weeks of field training and another 16 hours of training required by the state specifically for school resource officers.
The district doesn't actually spend its $500,000 allocated for school security until the sheriff's office has filled the positions it is responsible for. Since it is already three months into the school year, Johnson said, there will be savings on the district's end.
Johnson met with Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and Chief Deputy Austin Garrett on Monday to discuss the challenge.
He said both are in favor of the district offering a signing bonus to new officers, as it could encourage a candidate to choose the resource officer route rather than a patrol officer position or other specialized area.
Chief of Staff Nakia Towns Edwards also noted Monday night that she had previously met with Capt. Shaun Shepherd, who leads the sheriff's office school resource officer unit.
According to Shepherd, patrol officers are made aware of resource officer vacancies at schools in their area to ensure calls to the school are their first priority and so they spend additional time canvassing areas around the school.
"One thing that Capt. Shepherd is very thoughtful about is the strength of an SRO's repertoire and relationships," Towns Edwards said in response to potentially shifting where current SROs are stationed. "If you move someone from what might be a lower-risk school to what might be a higher-risk school, he was hesitant about that because that SRO might have a relationship there and has a higher impact — He feels very uncomfortable with shifting people around, and again we differ to their expertise," Towns Edwards said Monday.
Johnson's administration also will be asking the school board to approve a new student security officer position to serve in the district's Operations Department. The position's role will include coordinating school resource officers and other security programs at schools, overseeing the district's tip hotline and other responsibilities.
School board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, proposed the district look into hiring off-duty officers just to serve as patrols at schools that are not covered, something private organizations or event organizers often do.
"Some coverage is better than no coverage," McClendon said.
Neither the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office or Hamilton County Schools could provide the exact number of officers now working at Hamilton County schools or which schools did or did not have a resource officer as of Tuesday.
In a statement, Chief Deputy Austin Garrett of the sheriff's office did encourage qualified individuals to consider applying to be a resource officers.
"The HCSO is currently hiring for nine SRO positions to serve in our local schools. We are working diligently in our community to recruit viable, successful candidates to fill these important positions. If someone is interested and is a certified P.O.S.T. officer in good standing, they are welcome to apply online. We encourage anyone who meets these qualifications to apply and join our team," Garrett said in a statement.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.