April 24, 2023
By: Dwayne Page
State funding will soon be coming to DeKalb County to fund School Resource Officer positions.
State Representative Michael Hale, in an interview with WJLE last week, said the Tennessee General Assembly has approved funding to provide for at least one School Resource Officer in every public school in Tennessee. It’s part of Governor Bill Lee’s plan to significantly increase funding for school safety programs like SROs’, building security upgrades and a grant program for all schools, not just public schools, to use to upgrade their security measures.
“The state will be funding up to $75,000 per school for an SRO officer and that funding will be recurring expense so each one of our schools in DeKalb County will get this money. That is in the state budget along with a grant program for added security measures in public schools. The Governor had $7 million but we (state lawmakers) raised that to $14 million which is a grant pool for private schools across the state as well to fund security measures, whether its cameras, or whatever means they choose. They could apply for that,” said Representative Hale.
Currently, an SRO is stationed at each of the five schools in DeKalb County. Three of them are funded by the county and two by the school district but all five SRO’s work for the sheriff’s department. It’s not yet been determined how this new state funding will be applied locally.
“I think we are very blessed to live in the State of Tennessee. I would like to thank the General Assembly for identifying areas of opportunity to make our schools safer. No matter how this is applied to the county, I see nothing but great improvement going forward,” said County Mayor Matt Adcock.
“With this money coming from the state, it gives us a lot of options,” said Sheriff Patrick Ray. “We could double up if we want to and have two SROs at each school or we could take that state money and pay for the five SROs we have already. These are just two of our options,” said Sheriff Ray.
“It’s a good day for school systems with them (state lawmakers) willing to cover the salary of an SRO in every school in Tennessee. That helps parents and stakeholders within a community to have a little more peace of mind,” said Director of Schools Patrick Cripps.
“We (school district) already get about $67,000 from a safe schools grant each year and some of that money goes to the county for the two SROs that we fund for the sheriff’s department and we have done other security measures with a portion of the grant including adding more surveillance cameras at all schools to monitor activity inside and outside the buildings; school staff have been provided with more walkie-talkies for better communication; more secure doors have been installed; and safety sphere bollards placed near entrances to the elementary schools as barriers to prevent anyone from using an automobile to crash into the front of the buildings,” Director Cripps said.
“Five years ago, a new key fob system was installed at the high school to better control access to the four buildings on campus during the school day. The key fob is a keyless remote device managed by a computer program to allow entry through one automatically locked door or throughout an entire facility. If there should be a security threat at the high school administrators can punch a button to lock down doors to each building on campus. All high school students and faculty are assigned an electronic key fob to gain entry to the buildings while school is in session. Except for class changes, all doors to each building are kept locked during the school day. The students’ key fobs are active only from 7:45 a.m. until 3 p.m. weekdays and from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. for the faculty. Administrators may use their key fobs at all times,” Cripps continued.
“All five DeKalb County Schools also have security vestibules now to enhance safety of students and staff. While visitors to the schools had already been locked out and had to press a button at the front entrance to be allowed inside and for them to sign in, prior to the vestibules there had been no other security barrier or confined area to keep people from roaming the halls before being received by office staff, teacher, or principal. Security vestibules changed that by creating a secure space for additional protection. Once a visitor has signed in and been identified as an authorized visitor, the doors from the sign-in area to the school are electronically unlocked and the visitor is then allowed to enter the school,” said Director Cripps.
Originally, the school system had only one SRO but that changed several years ago under a cooperative agreement between the County Mayor and county commission, Director of Schools and Board of Education, and Sheriff Ray.
“At that time, former Director of Schools Mark Willoughby, School Board, and former County Mayor Mike Foster and the County Commission all came together. The county, which had already been paying for one School Resource Officer, agreed to pick up (fund) two more SROs and the school system picked up (funded) two more SROs so that put an SRO in every school because of that partnership. We are very fortunate to have that arrangement today because there are counties around us that still don’t have an SRO in every school,” said Sheriff Ray.
Although the state funding has been allocated for the SRO positions, it will have to go to the counties to be administered by local law enforcement agencies.
“Its my understanding that under the state funding guidelines, law enforcement agencies are the ones to ask for the money. In Tennessee, different law enforcement departments operate SRO programs. Some are police departments and others are sheriff’s departments. In DeKalb County, the sheriff’s department operates the SRO program so in our case I would ask for the money and the state would pay up to $75,000 of the salary. Of course, our officers don’t make that much, but it will pay for the salary they have and cover any raises they get,” said Sheriff Ray.
If the local SRO program is expanded, Sheriff Ray is hopeful he would be able to staff it.
“One of the things law enforcement agencies today have to look at is personnel. Most departments are understaffed because it has become harder to find people to come into law enforcement. It might be difficult for some counties our size to find extra officers. Adding to the problem is that the state has passed a pay raise for state troopers with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Most sheriff and police departments have a hard time retaining employees so that will be a challenge for us to fill slots if we add more officers”.
In order to best make use of the state funds, Sheriff Ray said he intends to meet with county and school officials to come up with a plan although he already has some ideas.
According to Sheriff Ray, an extra SRO is needed at the high school.
“The high school is probably the most problematic school in the system with the number of older students and the SRO we have there now stays very busy so I feel like that would be a good place to put an extra one,” said Sheriff Ray.
“Another reason for an extra SRO at the high school is that if an officer is out sick at one of the other schools, this second SRO at the high school could fill in for that person. Right now, we use the SRO at the middle school to fill in and the reason for that is because the middle school and high school buildings are connected together which still leaves one covering those schools. That makes more sense than having an SRO from one of the other schools filling in due to an absence and leaving no one in their school building,” he said.
“We also have the option of putting an extra SRO at DeKalb West School to have two SROs there because it is so far out in the county. If something were to happen there it would take several minutes for responding units to arrive. The other four schools are in the City of Smithville much closer to law enforcement agencies”.
“I am eager to get it started. I am waiting to see what the state requires in order for us to get reimbursements for SROs. When we get more details, I will sit down with the county mayor and budget committee as well as the school board and director to see what our options are and try to make a good sound decision. We always want to protect our kids and the school staff at the schools, and I think it was a good move on the part of our elected officials at the state to fund these SROs,” said Sheriff Ray.
“The school system has done a good job of reinforcing the school buildings and taking other security measures and we have regular meetings with the school board, Smithville and Alexandria police departments, and my department to keep up to date on what has been and still needs to be done to make schools safer,” said Sheriff Ray.