Catoosa County officials are planning to add seven school resource officers at elementary schools, giving all the county's 18 school campuses their own dedicated Catoosa County Sheriff's Office deputy.
Sheriff Gary Sisk said the reason he's asking for a supplement to his budget now — before budget season begins — is so he can hire the seven officers before school begins Aug. 8. Hiring so many officers is a "monumental task," Sisk said, but he will make the effort.
At the Catoosa County Commission meeting Monday night, the $110,000 addition to the sheriff's budget was approved unanimously, enough to hire and fund the new officers until Sept. 30. Budget season is coming soon, Sisk said, which is the process to create a new county budget for the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. There was no discussion of how much it would cost to fund the new officers for an entire fiscal year.
The county's five commissioners were supportive of the plan to extend police protection to all school campuses countywide. Commissioner Vanita Hullander said she appreciates that the sheriff and school system are being proactive.
"I can't imaging leaving one stone unturned, and something happened and we looked back and said, 'We could've done something,'" Commissioner Chuck Harris said.
"Absolutely," Sisk said.
Sisk said he also has designed a plan to have a school resource officer at every after-school event, including sporting events, band recitals and school plays. Sisk said he would be able to balance those extra hours against the time off schools take for summer and holidays when school resource officers aren't needed.
High schools and middle schools already had dedicated school resource officers, Sisk said, but elementary schools currently share school resource officers.
School resources officers are part of a multi-layer security plan, Sisk said, that includes training for students and teachers, a security system that manages access to schools and mental health protocols.
"If we see someone who might be in need, hopefully, we're catching it early on," he said. "but if it does come down to the unforgivable, we want to make sure we have a uniformed officer there."
Chase Nix, Catoosa County Public Schools superintendent, said he was fully behind this security proposal and thankful the commission was open to amending the sheriff's budget.
"It highlights the partnership that we have always had taking care of our kids," he said. "The Catoosa County school system, the Catoosa County Board of Education the Board of Commissioners and the Sheriff's Office have always worked together to put our kids first, and to keep our kids safe."
Catoosa County Public Schools reimburse the Sheriff's Office for deputies in the schools, Sisk said.
Ron Ward, who lives on the east side of Catoosa County, said he's concerned about how the added personnel expense will affect the budget, and more specifically, senior citizens like him living on a fixed income.
In interviews after the meeting, Sisk said there have been no threats at the county's schools this year, but this move to have a marked patrol car in front of every school and a uniformed officer inside gives people "a warm and fuzzy feeling."
Student resource officers do more than provide security. Sisk said they teach the Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety program that promotes all types of safety, discourage violence and teaches students about the dangers of drugs. He said student resource officers also read in classrooms and teach a public safety class that introduces students to some aspects of a career in law enforcement.
"A lot of it is about relationships, building that community," Sisk said.
"We have a lot of people that are nervous about what's been going on nationally with the incidents that have happened," Sisk said. "We want parents to be happy about their children going to school, and we want children to feel safe and come into an environment where they're going to learn."