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Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond has begun returning school resource officers to area campuses after reassigning them to work at Silverdale Detention Center.

Three resource officers returned to their public schools last week and more are expected to be returned in the coming weeks, he said last week at a news conference. The county is budgeted to employ a total of 35 school resource officers, including ranking officers, however it has had trouble filling those positions.

"We were prepared to move our SROs back in but on a schedule that would fit what we're having to do in taking over Silverdale out here," Hammond said.

The timing was right for the school resource officers to be repurposed, after schools across the system transitioned last year to online learning in response to the coronavirus. Then, the sheriff's office learned in July that CoreCivic, the private company that had operated the jail for decades, would not be renewing its contract. The contract expired at the end of 2020, and the sheriff decided to bring those duties in-house.

"Agencies historically have to do their policing and things with what they have, and unfortunately what's been going on with that prison has shortcut the sheriff's office on their manpower and to make sure that transition was done properly and in good faith, they had to put basically all hands on deck," said Vince Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, in a Monday interview.

School resource officers are experienced officers who receive specific training to work in schools. However, as officers, they can be placed wherever they are most needed.

"All those school resource officers were not hired just to be school resource officers, they were police officers and deputy sheriffs working [on the] street before, and then they requested and put in to be school resource officers," Champion said. "So they did the training and are now in the schools, but they could just as easily be pulled out of the schools and back on the road or corrections or anywhere else, because that is the interchangeability of what we do as a living as law enforcement officers."

At Silverdale, Hammond said school resource officers work on perimeter duty and not as corrections officers. He said there are 30 people in different stages of the hiring process to become corrections employees.

Along with hiring more corrections officers, contractors from a private company are set to begin taking over perimeter duty from resource officers within the next week to 10 days so that more SROs can return to schools.

However, even fully staffed, Hammond said there are not enough school resource officers and it has been an ongoing issue due to a lack of funding and difficulties finding people interested in doing the job.

"We're nowhere near where we need to be with SROs," Hammond said.

In addition to SROs, there are 10 school safety officers, or SSOs, working in Hamilton County Schools, said James Corbin, coordinator of student safety. SROs work for the sheriff's department while SSOs work for the school district.

The goal is to have an officer in every school, Corbin said, but it's a challenge to meet that goal for the same two reasons Hammond cited last week.

"Funding is the biggest thing, and finding that many people who want to work as law enforcement officers or be in law enforcement in any capacity right now is hard," Corbin told the Times Free Press on Friday.

Hamilton County Schools superintendent Bryan Johnson emailed the school board last Wednesday morning expressing concerns for school safety. However, in the news conference, Hammond said he received a call from Johnson that morning and they were on the same page about the situation.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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