Hamilton County Schools could soon hire up to 10 security officers for local schools if the school board votes to approve the move this week, despite initial advice from one of the district's newest officials.
In October, school board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, urged the board to explore contracting private security officers or off-duty police officers to patrol campuses that don't have resource officers, but the move was halted by other board members until the district had hired its new school security coordinator.
Now only about 1 in 3 schools in Hamilton County has a school resource officer, and about nine of the SRO positions budgeted by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and the district remain vacant. James Corbin was hired to oversee the district's school safety efforts and made a splash when he was introduced to the board in December and quickly shot down McClendon's idea.
But the proposal is back on the table and on Thursday's school board agenda.
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Locally, Hamilton County has struggled to fill positions at both the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office and Chattanooga Police Department, which has affected filling SRO positions.
"I also think the reality is the sheriff's office working in conjunction with us has not been able to fill these SRO jobs, so we have to look at how do we get someone that is armed on our school campuses and this is the solution to that and we'll see if this is successful," McClendon told the Times Free Press.
The security officers would be responsible for patrolling and monitoring school campuses and school buildings, maintaining a visible presence and ensuring external security, but they would not be involved in discipline or counseling students and would not serve the same functions as a school resource officer. Applicants would be required to be Tennessee Peace Officer Standards & Training certified and have firearms training, but they would not be commissioned law enforcement officers.
McClendon acknowledged during a meeting Monday night that he had been "hammering" Superintendent Bryan Johnson about the issue for months.
"After hearing the conversations that the board had over the last two, three months starting with my proposal for private security, they had to do something," McClendon said of Johnson and his team's decision to reconsider the idea. "After careful consideration, [Superintendent Bryan] Johnson and Dr. Corbin realized that we had to do something and this is not really a solution, but a step that they see can really help us in providing security at a lot more of our schools."
Chief Operations Officer Justin Robertson told the board that these officers would work alongside Corbin and with each school's individual school safety team. The district would use funds from the $500,000 it allocated toward school resource officers to pay these new employees, whose salaries would range from about $35,000-$40,000 annually.
McClendon and other board members praised the effort as a "first step" in trying to strengthen security at the district's 74 schools, something the community has called for since the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
"We are a little late I think, but we are moving in the right direction," said board member Joe Smith, of District 3.
Some board members are concerned about the move away from school resource officers, which all agreed are "the gold standard," though.
"We all agree that an SRO is the gold standard to what we would like to have in our schools," said school board member Jenny Hill, of District 6. "School resource officers are incredibly valuable to our schools and our student bodies. And we know that's what we want the most of — so as we think through how we create this job description, if we make a less-skilled person take home as much money with great benefits as a school resource officer, do you see how over time that's a problem to recruit school resource officers?"
Johnson said the district is approaching the issue one step at a time.
"Do we think this is a long-term solution? We really don't know the answer to that right now," he said.
Armed security officers are becoming more prevalent in schools across the country — they were present at least once a week in 43 percent of all public schools during the 2015-16 school year, compared with 31 percent of schools a decade before, according to a federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2018.
The board will vote whether to approve the positions during its January meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.