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News Education Jackson County moving toward a stronger safety network in schools

Jackson County is joining school districts from across the country who are focusing on school safety. Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., law enforcement officers have been working with school officials to ensure that public schools are as safe as possible.

During January's regularly scheduled Jackson County Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Mike Murray informed board members that he believed additional school resource officers (SRO) should be considered for school sites that currently do not have them. “The school system's role is to work with county commissioners and the Sheriff's Office in a collaborative effort to ensure that we keep students safe and to look at all avenues when doing that,” said Murray.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe has been working with the school system to ensure that students within the county are as safe as possible. “This is not a new concern of mine,” said Sheriff Ashe. “I have always been an advocate of ensuring that are schools were as safe as possible and I believe that now more than ever, is the time we need to act.”

Ashe supports Murray's request for officers in the four elementary schools in the district that do not have assigned SROs. “Right now we have officers stationed at the three high schools, Smoky Mountain, Blue Ridge and the alternative school known as the Hub,” explained Ashe. “We would like to see full-time resource officers at the other four schools in the district which are Smokey Mountain, Scotts Creek, Cullowhee Valley and Fairview, all K–8 schools.”

Ashe explained that the way his department is designed right now, officers are assigned to visit each school without an SRO throughout the school day.

The three existing SROs in Jackson County were first introduced to the school system in the late ’90s with federal and state monies that were designated toward providing SROs in public high schools.

According to Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, the Sheriff’s Department has estimated the annual cost of a single SRO to be $44,128.05. This is salary and employer matching benefits. “The Sheriff’s proposal to the school board was to provide four additional SROs at an annual cost of $176,512.16,” said Wooten. “In addition, the start-up costs to provide each SRO with a vehicle, uniforms, and equipment was estimated at $141,124.88. Other than salaries and fringe benefits, recurring allocations will be required to cover vehicle operating costs, uniform replacements, and other operating costs and we do not have an estimate of those costs at this time but would expect that annual amount to be less than $20,000.”

Wooten explained that if funded, comm issioners would appropriate the funds to the Jackson County School Board and they would contract with the Sheriff’s Office for the SROs. “This is the process currently used for the three existing SROs in county schools,” said Wooten. “This procedure would allow the school board the flexibility to establish the SROs as they best determine and to evaluate the effectiveness of the contract and decide whether the contract should continue or whether the funds could be reallocated to more effective uses.”

Murray explained that since the tragedies that occurred before Christmas, parents have contacted him and the majority of their input has been to increase the number of SROs in the county, allotting for one at each school.

Both Murray and Sheriff Ashe emphasized the importance of understanding the role of an SRO. “It is crucial to understand that an SRO is not an armed guard that just sits in front of the school,” said Murray. “SROs become embedded in the culture of the school and build relationships with the students. The students trust them and are comfortable having them there. It is our job as a school system to build safe, comfortable, nurturing environments for the children to learn in, and SROs help do just that.”

Sheriff Ashe explained the diverse role SROs play in the school system. “School Resource Officers are used to teach the DARE programs and the more SROs we have, we can expand those programs,” said Ashe. “SROs are also used to teach safety and tolerance classes within the school. They work closely with children psyc hological services and hold monthly meetings with the school safety task force to ensure that everything possible is being done to keep our children safe.”

Jackson County's Sheriff's Office views the increase in SROs as a way to increase the overall security of the district, which is something Ashe has been diligently working on for the past three years. “Three years ago we began looking at school safety and evaluating ways to better protect our children,” he said. “That is when we obtained funding for cameras in all the schools and buses. In addition to more officers, we are looking to strengthen the safety through key card swipes at the school's entrances and buzzer systems.”

Murray agreed that while there is no pressing safety concerns in Jackson County schools, more officers would allow better protection for everyone. “I consider our schools to be extremely safe, but our safe school model continues to improve and evolve.”

Conversation throughout the nation involving school safety has continued to be split, with one area of debate being the option of arming classroom teachers. Like Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland, Sheriff Ashe and Superintendent Murray believe that is not the answer.

“I believe that school security should be left up to those who are professionally trained people who specialize in protecting our students,” said Ashe. “Unless teachers are ex-military or have had the speciality training that law enforcement officers have had, I believe that it is not a good idea to arm teachers.”

“I think the first step is to look at securing additional SROs,” said Murray. “The best avenue is to have a trained officer that is best suited to adequately keep our schools safe. Our number one goal is to protect the children.”

While no formal request has been made to county commissioners as of yet, a work session between the county, the school board and law enforcement is scheduled for later this month to discuss the matter further. “First and foremost, the commissioners are concerned about school safety and want to work with the school board to assist them where possible,” said Wooten. “The two boards have not discussed this issue jointly and that conversation will take place on Feb. 18 at the commissioners monthly work session. Since funds are not currently allocated in the FY 12-13 budget for this purpose it would require an amendment taking funds from contingency, fund balance or reallocating funds from some other source. The superintendent and representatives from the school board will make a presentation and request at the commissioners work session on Feb. 18 about school safety and how SROs fit with the overall safety plan for the schools. In addition, the Sheriff or his representative will be present to discuss SROs from the law enforcement perspective. The commissioners will consider the school board’s request at a future meeting possibly as soon as the evening of the 18 but most likely in March.”

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