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Officials say officers will still be in schools

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley and Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown have outlined how they are handling limited funding for school resource officers for the upcoming fiscal year.
“The sheriff and I have met and we want to reassure everybody that we’re still going to have the same safety measures that we’ve had in years past,” Brown said during a press conference Monday morning at the Unicoi County Board of Education office. “He is very gracious to work with the school system. We will have people on site.
“What he’s doing is going to take care of them not being there with even more of a presence,” Brown said. “With these cuts, the safety is not going to be jeopardized at all.”
In the past, Brown said, the school system has funded two SRO positions, but this year’s $12,000 Safe Schools grant doesn’t leave room to budget for the officers’ salaries and benefits, which costs roughly $77,000 for both positions.
“The SRO program started several years ago through a grant called COPS in Schools,” she said. “When it originally started with that grant, it was the first SRO we had. We also, after that grant, had some funds called Safe School funds that flow through the state. We used those funds at that time for our SRO positions.”
Since the program’s initiation, funding has been cut gradually over the years, said Brown, which leaves them no option but to reassess the situation.
“In the past, between grants and Safe Schools we were able to reimburse the sheriff’s department for the SROs,” she said. “With the cuts in all those funds, most counties are in the same situation. Sometimes they are in a lot worse of a situation than we are with budgeting. Some of the cuts they’ve had are the same things we’ve had to do.”
The agreement between the two local entities was that the school board pays for two officers and the sheriff’s department pays for one, Brown said.
“What we’ve done for the past few years when those grants run out and with the safe school funds is reimburse the sheriff’s department for two SROs and they pay for one out of their budget, which is the supervisor over the other two,” she said. “We’ve currently had one at the middle school and high school on site with the supervisor furnished through the sheriff’s department, whose office is located at the high school.”
However, this year Hensley said there is a new plan, which involves rearranging coverage of the schools, training officers and taking the financial situation before the Unicoi County Commission.
“We are going to take care of the children while they are in school,” he said. “[The schools] are all going to be patrolled.”
The sheriff’s department-funded supervisory position will remain and the officer’s office will still be located at the high school, he said.
“When we talk about having two SRO officers there, a lot of times they were out serving truancy petitions,” she said. “It wasn’t like they were on site there all the time. They were out doing other things. If we needed somebody for when a kid missed the bus and we couldn’t get a hold of a parent, they were the first person we would call. They would take them home. They patrolled outside in the parking lots along with other duties.”
Also, Hensley said two sheriff’s department officers are currently being SRO trained – Daniel Honeycutt and Jason Tilson.
Training is paid for by the sheriff’s department, said Hensley.
“In fact, we’re going to have an SRO officer in the town of Unicoi,” Hensley said. “The reason for that is the distance away and response time for other officers could be slow getting there if they were on another call. Jason Tilson will be taking that position. He will be on site as well as patrolling Unicoi. He can be there in a matter of minutes if something were to happen.”
The town of Unicoi allots a certain amount of money to the sheriff’s department to ensure they are protected, said Hensley.
Brown and Hensley said that they have asked the Erwin Police Department to join in on the effort as well.
“This is just to reassure even though the two positions have been cut, there’s still going to be people,” Brown said. “We’re probably going to have more visibility, since we’re working together with the Chief of Police in Erwin and the sheriff’s department, than we’ve had in the past.”
Brown outlined some of the ways she would like to see the two agencies maintain safety at the schools.
“We have a plan devised where there will constantly be someone patrolling parking lots, the walkways, and we encourage them to come have lunch,” she said. “We want their presence and that’s the purpose of SRO program, to have a presence.”
Brown said she wants the public to know that the school system has safety plans in place that have been given to both law enforcement entities in the county.
“We have safety plans that we practice on a regular basis,” she said. “They have copies of those safety plans and are very familiar with those. If we had a true emergency, we have a response time of probably less than two minutes.”
Hensley said his officers are well informed about how to handle emergency situations at the schools.
“We do have the plans,” he said. “Any kind of scenario that could happen at one of our schools is on paper. Our officers are very well aware of that. They have designated areas to go to around each school.”
“I feel sure and confident that we can handle any situation that might arise on a minute’s notice,” Hensley said. “All athletic events will be covered by our officers.”
Brown said all school buildings are equipped with safety locks on the door that require the office to buzz a visitor in before they can enter a school. “We already have things in place as far as safety,” she said. “There’s not a school building you can get in without buzzing through the office. Our security is in place and our safety plans. So, we feel comfortable with what [Hensley] is doing with the visibility of officers and with the chief of police doing the same. We’re very comfortable with that.”
Hensley also added that the DARE program for 5th and 6th graders will continue.
“We’re going to continue the DARE program in our schools,” he said. “We will have certified [officers] teaching that. We’re going to utilize the officers that have already been certified.”
Hensley said that the individuals who were assigned the SRO positions before the cuts will keep their positions at the sheriff’s department.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation brought on about this SRO program,” Hensley said. “It’s not my fault. It’s not Mrs. Brown’s fault. It’s cut across the state. It’s just something that happened. We’re working together to resolve this problem and we’ve got it resolved. In fact, it’s safer now than it was before. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Brown thanked both agencies for their interest in assisting the school system with safety and security. “I appreciate the sheriff making this a priority,” she said. “I appreciate the Chief of Police Regan Tilson, who is also willing to work with us. The safety of our students is No. 1.”
The school board’s policy for school policing is that any SRO officer must be POST Commission-certified and must complete 40 hours of training within 12 months of assignment. The officer must also have at least two years of law enforcement experience.
The policy also states that, “Any SRO assigned under the memorandum remains an employee of the law enforcement agency, subject to that agency’s direction, control, supervision and discipline, though the Board may agree to indemnify and reimburse the law enforcement agency for any part or all of the increased costs incurred by the law enforcement agency as a result of the assignment of the SROs.”
The school board’s memorandum of understanding states that, “The director of schools and the sheriff and/or chief of police will work together to define the goals of the program, the role of the school resource officer and the general framework under which the program will operate.”