Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Hamilton County Schools superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks about several measures local schools have taken for safety purposes during a Town Hall meeting Monday at East Hamilton Middle High School in Ooltewah.

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School safety meetings

Would you spend $90 a year on your son or daughter's school safety? Your grandson's or granddaughter's school safety? The well-being of a niece or nephew?

Pull it apart a little. That's about a quarter a day for little Johnny — and all the rest of Hamilton County's 44,400 or so Jacks and Janes — to have an SRO in school every day.

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That 25 cents a day would pay the $4 million that Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond says it will take to put a trained, armed and ready school resource officer in every public school here.

The $4 million figure looks formidable until we break it down by student, but it seems like a no-brainer if you calculate it like lunch money.

Now some Hamilton County and Chattanooga officials — along with the representatives of a national school safety consulting firm — are beginning to put the hard sell on residents and other officials about classroom safety — especially in the aftermath of the school shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school in February that left 17 students and teachers dead.

Since that tragic Valentine's Day shooting, school safety has been a hot topic in local conversations that have ranged from school funding and mental health to arming teachers.

The debate is not a bad thing. What would be bad would be having no thoughtful community discussion at all.

We certainly can't say, "Oh, that won't happen here."

Well, it did. We never imagined that a terrorist-inspired young man would gun down five U.S. servicemen here. He did.

We can and must have serious discussions, and action, to protect our children from what is a clear and apparently growing threat, thanks to too many guns, too much bullying, too much mental illness, too much violent TV, too little love — whatever.

Frankly, the cause of these school shootings — 33 in 2018 alone, and 306 since 2013, according to Everytown, a gun safety advocacy group — is too much and too little of many things. But causes aren't really the point right now. If they were, the price tag for "real" fixes might be closer to $4 million per child, not $4 million for a countywide school SRO program.

Might a $4 million program — year after year — still not be enough? Of course. There are no fail-safe guarantees.

Are there cheaper options? Sure — but very few of us want to see armed teachers. And "volunteers" — even retired police and veterans — are good only until it's time for their vacation fishing trip or their doctor's appointments. Besides, would you want a "volunteer" doctor to be on call for your next emergency room visit?

We do already have a bit of a jump start. Hamilton County has 29 schools with SROs. But hiring, training and paying SROs in the other 50 schools will cost about $4 million a year, Hammond says.

What's more, training is key. Not just any officer makes a good SRO. Nor is the standard law enforcement street training exactly the right fit for the halls of a school. An SRO must be more than a deputy or police officer. He or she also becomes a mentor, a role model, a safety instructor.

To help make this sell, Hammond and Weston Wamp this week brought some school safety experts to town. Hammond and Michael Yorio, president of SSI Guardian, talked with a group of county, city and school officials on Monday morning. They met with editors of the Times Free Press on Monday afternoon, then held a town hall at East Hamilton Middle High School in Ooltewah.

It was a good beginning, though the town hall was scheduled at an inconvenient time for teachers and students with parents who might be still at work and unable to attend a 4 p.m. meeting. As a consequence, the discussion included little input from those very vital stakeholders.

The experts, Yorio and SSI safety instructor Todd Evans, talked about the training available both for SROs and for teachers, who need to learn and gain confidence in their ability to facilitate lock downs anywhere — even in classrooms without locking doors.

The security consultants also help local officials plan in advance how to quickly determine who will be in charge of response and responsible for coordination and followup in communities like ours where a county school system spans multiple municipalities.

It's easy to call for greater security in our schools. It's harder to determine what exactly that security should be, and how to achieve it.

Hamilton County has lots more talking and planning to do. But it has to be done right now — not next month, next season or next year.

And, no, a quarter a day is not too much to spend on the safety of each of our county school children — not to mention our 3,000 or so teachers.

Lives may well depend on it.