By LEE JOHNSON | Nashville Voice
Legislation that would place a school resource officer in every Tennessee school is receiving bipartisan support, as well as thumbs up from education officials.
The recently filed proposal is part of Gov. Bill Lee’s legislative package and comes with a $40 million price tag. However, supporters of the measure say it’s necessary amid continued school and mass shootings across the country.
The legislation also appeals to those against arming teachers. A bill that would arm certain teachers in Tennessee failed toward the end of last year’s General Assembly.
“We’re opposed to arming teachers,” said Jim Wrye, assistant executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher group. “Teaching is already a full-time job; being security as well, is something that doesn’t make sense to me. So, an SRO program is a way to say we don’t need that.”
Currently, there are about 500 Tennessee schools that do not have school resource officers. Many of those schools are in rural counties.
The proposed SRO legislation will double the recurring funding for school safety grants from the current $10 million to $20 million and includes an additional non-recurring $20 million investment.
It will also provide additional changes to existing law to prioritize the distribution of grants to fill SRO positions, as well as adjust limited match requirements to be proportional to districts’ fiscal capacity.
“Our children are our most valuable assets, and this is an issue that I am extremely passionate about,” said Rep. Brandon Ogles, a Franklin Republican and the bill’s main sponsor. “It will help us enhance safety at our schools and classrooms across Tennessee and ensure our children focus on learning.”
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, echoed that sentiment.
“All of our students should have the opportunity to attend a safe school, and this investment will better secure our academic institutions during school hours,” Johnson said.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the state legislature’s Black Caucus, said he supports the legislation because “the need for additional safety measures in our schools is undeniable.”
However, he wants to make sure the role of an SRO is well-defined.
“I don’t want to see the school resource officer identified as just an off-duty law enforcement officer, or ex-military that’s ready to shoot a shooter,” Hardaway said. “But I think what really protects our children is getting out in advance of those situations, and part of that means studying and being familiar with student behavior, being familiar with mental health issues, and being able to help evaluate the facilities for safety.
“All of that I would like to see defined within the responsibilities of a school resource officer,” Hardaway added.
Rep. Harold Love Jr., a Nashville Democrat, said the intent of the legislation is justified.
“You want to make sure all your schools’ faculty, staff, and students are safe,” he said. “And unfortunately, we live in a society where people do bring guns into schools and want to do harm. If this will help mitigate that, I’m supportive of it.”
Under the proposal, schools that currently have an SRO can find additional safety priorities, like implementing building security measures or developing violence prevention programs.