On a day that the Tennessee Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that would prominently display the words “In God We Trust” in every school building in the state, the Hamilton County School Board gave my boy Bad Little Johnny cause to get a magic market and scribble underneath, “but ‘Everybody Else Is Gonna’ Need A Pistol!’”
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, who was shamefully instructed his remarks must be limited to “less than five minutes” like an ordinary petitioner before the board, was the feature attraction at Thursday night’s monthly meeting and likened his message to Charles Dickens’ great line, “It is the best of times, and the worst of times.”
On Valentine’s Day “school security” became the hottest topic after 16 students and an assistant coach were killed in yet another mass shooting. How Nikolas Cruz ever slipped through the cracks to attack his former classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in south Florida is as mystifying as the heinous act and across the nation law enforcement agencies have switched from “prevent” to “prepare.’
Sheriff Hammond said it would take a minimum of $4 million to equip every public school in Hamilton County with School Resource Officers (SROs) and school board member Rhonda Thurman all but told the sheriff, “We’ll get the money … there is no other choice.”
Rhonda believes the city of Chattanooga, which now supplies two officers to the school, might be willing to help, along with the various municipalities in the county but Hammond held up his hand, “I think we need to learn more what the federal government and the state’s response will be. I’ve been in touch with other sheriffs and politicians in Washington.
“Frankly I’m not optimistic we will get anywhere near what we’ll need. The governor just approved $30 million but the great amount of that will go to ‘distressed’ counties that have no way to get security funding. Other states, especially in the South, have the same problems and the federal government has just given us two big grants so I understand that other cities need help just like all of us do.”
The sheriff was well-received and, when pressed about arming teachers, he said he is not discounting anything. “I understand some of the private schools have armed a few teachers but that’s a ‘Don’t ask … Don’t tell’ type of thing. Area churches are doing the same thing. We’ve had a Christian school contact us to supply a full-time SRO … one that would be a county deputy and a full-time deputy but report to the school every day under our command. The school would pay for the service … we are trying to learn if we can legally do that.”
Two board members, David Testerman and Joe Wingate, are eager to hear every option while Joe Smith thumped his chest and said, “Here’s one board member who will do whatever to support whatever you suggest, Sheriff. I feel like all of us believe in you.”
Others weren’t so sure. Some high school children, emboldened by the recent walk-out in memory of the Parkland victims, tried to get the school board to “refuse to participate” if a pending bill in the legislature allows teachers to carry guns. All 17 families of the victims in Florida are in favor of arming teachers but Franklin McCallie, a much-beloved character who was a high school principal in St. Louis called the notion “unthinkable,” saying that “an SRO is trained to watch the door and a teacher is trained to educate.”
About that time a spokesman for the NAACP offered the school board two proposals to better integrate Chattanooga’s public schools, saying that 12 had student bodies over 90 percent black or Hispanic while 89 percent of the teachers are white. When the pitchman said the two proposals would cost just $500,000 to put the Chattanooga schools in the forefront of integration, it was strikingly clear “school security” was far more desired.
The sheriff said that if he had the money, there was no way he could train and place 50 SROs any earlier than January, 2020. Conversely, if he had faculty volunteers that could pass psychological testing, complete a full week of classes this summer and be authorized by both the school board and the sheriff, “I’m not going to say I wouldn’t consider it if it meant keeping children safe.”
In short, nothing is off the table. “Right now we need to get the answers to a lot of questions that some of the best law enforcement people can’t answer. One thing is very obvious – we cannot sit and do nothing.”
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THE ‘IN GOD WE TRUST” bill was unanimous as it passed through the state Senate and it cleared the House by an 81-8 vote. Governor Bill Haslam is expected to sign it promptly. “I’ve never been one that thought having a motto somewhere changes a lot of people’s thought,” he said.
Earlier this year Florida adopted “In God We Trust” as its motto and Mississippi incorporated the words into the state seal. In Congress the words are displayed over the speaker’s dais and other states have pending legislation to adopt it as well.
For the record, “In God We Trust” was first introduced in the fourth stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Dwight Eisenhower made it America’s motto in 1956, displacing “E Pluribus Unum,” which had been the unofficial motto since 1782, when it was included in The Great Seal of the United States. If you already knew ‘E Pluribus Unum” translated from Latin means, “Out Of Many, One” move to the head of the class.