After the school shooting tragedies in Florida and Kentucky, school security is a dominant topic in the General Assembly. There is universal agreement the state needs to do more for SRO funding, but with inaction from the administration in past years on helping pay for school security, there are now bills that differ greatly on how to address safety gaps.
With the backing of TEA, a bipartisan group of Tennessee lawmakers is proposing a measure known as the School Safety Act of 2018, utilizing off-duty law enforcement officers to provide security. Participation would be voluntary, officers will be required to carry a gun, and they will be paid using state and local civil asset forfeiture funds.
Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) and Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) unveiled the school safety act during a news conference on February 28.
“Although this is a stop-gap measure, it provides a real ability to increase the safety of our schools until we can properly fund SROs for every school,” said Van Huss. "I've heard many in my area who would volunteer to do this, and want to keep kids safe."
The bill specifically calls on using law enforcement officials because of their training and the fact that they are insured, he said.
The act is meant as a short-term measure — it would expire in July 2022 — and lawmakers expect it to beef up security in the hopes of deterring a Tennessee school shooting.
"The best school security is with law enforcement officers, and in a time when barely half of our schools have SROs, this is an important step in improving safety," said Jim Wrye, TEA chief lobbyist. "Accessing the capacity of off-duty officers and providing resources for them may be an immediate solution for counties that struggle with funding enough SROs to protect all students and teachers. The next step is to find permanent funding to help these systems."
The lack of SRO funding is driving another bill TEA is opposed to: expanding the ability to arm teachers for security.
Tennessee state law currently allows a small number of distressed rural counties that can't afford SROs to designate a limited number of teachers to act as security if they volunteer. The law requires teachers to complete POST (police officer) training and ongoing certification. The local board must vote to approve and adopt policies on armed teachers, and the director has power to designate teachers and to remove the designation. The law has been seen as a last resort.
HB2208/SB2563 by Rep. David Byrd (R-Jonesboro) and Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) opens up this law to every school district in the state, regardless if they have SROs or not. The bill also allows private certified firms, rather than local law enforcement agencies, to provide POST training to teachers.
The bill passed its first hurdle on February 28, passing out of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on a partisan 5-2 vote.
There was unanimous agreement among committee members that trained law enforcement provide the best security to students and teachers. Reps. David Byrd, Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah), and Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville), pointed to the absence of funding for school resource officers across the state as the reason the bill is needed.
"The SRO program is what we all want," Carter said to The Tennessean. "That’s a message to every department and specifically to the administration. We need to talk seriously about getting funding."
Wrye spoke against the bill in committee, citing how arming teachers could impact interactions between teachers, students, administrators and parents. A teacher is very different than trained law enforcement personnel.
“There is a difference between a teacher or administrator dealing with a disruptive student, and an armed teacher or administrator dealing with a disruptive student. We don’t want to trade one kind of tragedy for another.”
Wrye noted the bill could actually stop the expansion of SROs, or even reduce their number, if county commissions decide to cut budgets and see arming teachers as a cost-saving measure on security.
“I think there are a lot of unintended consequences in opening this law to every district in the state,” said Wrye. “Far too many of our schools do not have SROs, but there has been steady progress in hiring more officers to provide security. That progress may grind to a halt if this is seen as a quick, cost-saving alternative.”
For many Tennessee county governments, a majority of the annual budget goes to schools and sheriff departments, and SROs may be an attractive line item to reduce in a time of budget cutting or changing priorities.
Opening this law to all may go counter to what the consensus is in the General Assembly, that the best safety is trained law enforcement.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
* Contact your legislator: say no to arming teachers, yes to SRO funding as proposed in HB2129/SB2059.
* Have your school board pass a resolution saying they won't arm teachers.
* Support efforts to increase law enforcement security in our schools.