In light of the recent Sandy Hook tragedies in Newtown, Conn., Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland recently gave presentations to both the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners regarding the district's school safety plans.
As Holland explained during both presentations, his concern is not a “knee-jerk” reaction in the wake of the killing of 26 individuals, but that school safety has always remained a constant priority for him and his department.
During Tuesday night's commissioner's meeting, Holland and members of his staff played out a scenario for the board in which Commissioners Ron Haven and Jimmy Tate were to role play as teachers faced with a situation involving a gunman within a school. The scenario allowed both commissioners three seconds to respond to a scenario in which they were not privy to the details beforehand. The intent of the Sheriff's demonstration was to prove that without the proper instruction and training, individuals, including teachers, outside of law enforcement are not mentally capable of assessing a situation and making conscious decisions under pressure. Holland wanted to demonstrate his reasons he does not believe the answer to the recent national gun debate is to put more guns in schools by arming teachers. “I think teachers should be teachers, and law enforcement officers should be law enforcement officers,” said Holland on Tuesday.
According to Holland, Macon County currently has five school resource officers (SRO), four of which are paid for out of the Sheriff's Office annual budget and one of which is funded by the Highlands Police Department. Holland believes that school safety should remain a priority to school officials and the community and that every effort possible needs to be made to put an SRO at each school site.
“When funding wasn't available in the past, I have eliminated positions to make it possible to have SROs in schools,” said Holland.
The first SROs came in 2001 after a federal grant was written to fund two positions. Seeing an increased need in ramped up school safety, Holland provided funds in the Sheriff's Office budget for two additional SRO positions. When the federal grant monies ran out, Holland made the decision to continue implementing the positions in order to keep schools in Macon County safe.
Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, Holland explained that he has directed his officers to visit the school sites on a rotating basis to ensure that schools are provided with extra security. “In the future, I think we need to see a continued increase in the number of SROs we have until each school in the county has one,” he said. “I know that this can not be done overnight, and it isn't cheap. This is something that is going to have to be carefully discussed among local officials and members of the community.”
Holland explained that an SRO is more than an armed body on guard in schools.
“Our SROs wear many hats in the school system,” said Holland. “They are active in the classrooms and stand as role models and friends to students in our schools.”
Holland's presentation was not intended to receive immediate action. “I am not asking you to provide me with funding for new officers right now,” said Holland. “I just want to encourage the beginning of a discussion on ways we can continue improving the safety of our students.”
County Commissioner Ronnie Beale stated that the board has begun thinking of cost effective ways to increase school security while the discussion of more SROs is taking place. A joint meeting between the board of commissioners’ liaisons with the Sheriff's Office and the Board of Education is planned for next week, and the two entities will weigh all options.
On the Macon County News facebook page, members of the community are also spoke out in favor of providing a school resource officer at each school site in the district.
“I love having a SRO in the schools,” wrote Louetta Smith. “I would be okay with having our taxes raised to cover the officers. We all want our children and grandchildren to be safe.”
According to Lee Hollingsworth Berger's facebook post, SROs will not only provide a safer environment for the children of Macon County, but could also pose employment opportunities for veterans.
Holland told commissioners that he did not believe that SROs could 100 percent prevent an attack from occurring, but he did feel it was a step in the right direction to ensure the safety and well-being of the children in the community.
Commissioners are expected to continue the conversation in the coming weeks and will consider funding options while establishing the budget for the upcoming year.
Macon County employees were honored at the board of commissioners’ meeting Tuesday night for their years of service.