Counties and school districts nationwide have been weighing the merits of adding more armed “school resource officers” in schools. While historically placed in high schools and occasionally middle schools — primarily to keep crime at bay within the student population — the trend of putting officers in elementary schools to guard against outside threats is plowing new ground.
Swain County was one of the first jurisdictions to add officers to its elementary schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Connecticut. The Macon County Sheriff’s Office plans to follow suit and request two additional officers in the upcoming budget, one possibly to be placed in an elementary school. Macon currently has four officers in public schools.
“With public support, and support of commissioners, we feel the time to act is now,” said Major Shannon Queen.
In Jackson County, there are currently officers assigned to Smoky Mountain High School, Blue Ridge School in Cashiers and the alternative school.
Queen said additional officers would be used to settle custody disputes on school grounds, help in the case of a medical emergency and as an extra resource for school faculty, students and their parents. He said the potential for an officer to stop, or mitigate, a mass shooting or other violent event would be also be a benefit.
The cost of placing those deputies in the schools would be about $317,000 for the first year, with the startup costs of vehicles and equipment factored into that figure, according to Queen. Each additional year would cost more than $180,000 to staff the officers in the schools.
The presentation to commissioners was not an official request for funding for the school system. The school board has not voted on the measure yet, said Superintendant Mike Murray. However, Murray said he was directed by the school board to make the pitch to commissioners, along with Queen, and gauge their response.
However, the school has other priorities that need funding, such as a leaky roof and an inadequate technology budget — both topics discussed at the same meeting following the request for more school resource officers. The county manager at the meeting asked Murray if additional officers were the school board’s highest priority.
“School safety always has to be a high priority,” Murray responded. “But I’m also going to share some things with you about a leaky roof.”
To replace the leaky roof at Cullowhee Valley School is expected to cost about $1 million dollars.
Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said he was not convinced that additional officers in elementary schools was the correct response to the mass shooting in Connecticut.
He said he would like to research a bit more about what other school districts are doing for added security and was also open to the idea of physical security measures such as door locks and video entry. He said he would also like to consider making mental health resources more available to students.
“Everybody is worried about the safety of the children,” Debnam said. “But I just don’t know if the school resource officers are the answer.”