Bill could fund school resource officer positions
Parents could soon be seeing armed officers in all schools in the county if a bill recently introduced in Washington passes.
If enacted, the Protect America’s Schools Act would use federal grant money to fund school resource officer positions across the state.
It would be a positive step toward keeping schools safe without contributing to the deficit, says freshman Congressman for the 11th District Mark Meadows.
He is proposing to revive the Cops in Schools grant program, which was created during President Bill Clinton's administration, but has not been funded since 2005. It was specifically designed to help law enforcement agencies hire new officers.
Meadows said the $30 million for the grant will be taken from unspent funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in order to remain fiscally responsible.
Several sheriffs and police chiefs from across the state, including three local chiefs, stood alongside Meadows last week during a press conference in support of the bill.
“The recent school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut sent shockwaves across the country,” said Meadows. “As a father, I grieved with the families who lost a loved one that day. And as a legislator, I vowed that I would take action to prevent future tragedies…”
Between the county’s 16 schools, there are five security school resource officers, all of which are armed full-time, sworn officers.
Tuscola, Pisgah and Central Haywood high schools and Waynesville Middle each have one, while Bethel and Canton middle schools share an officer. Pisgah and Tuscola have guard shacks that are manned semi-frequently, but they are not staffed by law enforcement.
“We’ve been talking about providing SROs in the schools for quite a while, and of course those conversations have increased since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.
But providing those officers to schools would mean using local funds, which are simply not available right now, he said.
The Protect America’s Schools Act would allow agencies to apply for a grant requesting the number of school resource officers needed. If accepted, the grant would fund those positions for three years.
At the expiration of the grant, the agency would be allowed to reapply, he said. But if they are not accepted into the program, the town would have to find funding for the position in order to keep the officer in school.
For Hollingsed, there is both Hazelwood and Central elementary schools to consider, but he said it would first involve a discussion with the town board and mayor.
“I look at it as a multifaceted approach to increasing safety in our schools and one of those is having an officer at every school…It would create another layer of protection for our kids,” said Hollingsed.
Maggie Valley Police Chief Scott Sutton stood in support of the legislation as well. Jonathan Valley Elementary School is the only one in his jurisdiction that needs an SRO.
“Every agency needs to consider doing it, but naturally, there won’t be enough funding for each agency in the county to have one,” he said.
Interim Sheriff Larry Bryson believes the need for school resource officers is greatest in the more rural schools, specifically Riverbend and Bethel elementaries.
That’s because the response time for deputies at those schools is several minutes — time that could be precious in the event of a tragedy.
If appointed sheriff in the upcoming election, he intends to get officers in both of those schools, even without the pending legislation. But Meadows’ bill would take the financial burden off the county.
“A car being visibly seen at a school would deter someone from committing a crime there. There’s no better deterrent than the guy on the ground and the uniform actually in the school,” Bryson said.
In Canton, Police Chief Bryan Whitner has the most schools without armed guards — Meadowbrook and North Canton elementaries and Bethel Christian Academy.
Being proactive is the best way to prevent tragedy, and he thinks this is one way to do it.
“With the tragedy in Newtown, it proves these things can happen and we certainly don’t want them to happen here. We want to do everything we can to be present and vigilent and make the schools safe,” he said.
Associate Superintendent of Haywood County Schools Dr. Bill Nolte said he believes school resource officers are an excellent deterrent for crime, but having them is costly. If Meadows' plan is adopted, Nolte hopes the funding will continue to be available long term.
"We would be appreciative of any revenue source especially one that would be long term that we could use to improve school safety," he said.
While adding armed officers to the school atmosphere is one answer, there are other steps that schools and law enforcement are taking to protect students.
Clyde Police Chief Gerard Ball has made recent presentations to school administrators and teachers about how to react if a gunman did attack at school.
Last week, with the help of the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, he even set up a demonstration at Haywood Christian Academy.
One officer pretended to run through the school, shooting teachers at random who were hiding in various places. The SWAT team acted as they would in a real-life situation, and went into the school in search of the shooter.
Talking about a shooter is one thing, but putting faculty and staff in that scenario is eye opening.
The demonstration shows teachers and staff that there is more than one way to handle such a scenario.
"The schools have their policies, but as Newtown showed us those policies are great on paper, but when someone makes it into the school that was locked down, that policy is no longer applicable. You’ve got to have a second, third and maybe even a fourth option," Ball said.
Although investing in ways to protect schools can be costly, he said school resource officers and other tools are worth every penny.
"You cannot put a price tag on a child's head," Ball said.