County Commission members said Tuesday they are anxious to expand the number of officers at county school campuses - even if it means using a number of security guards in addition to School Resource Officers.
They said they are concerned that a tragic incident will occur on a local campus with no officer present - either from not being assigned one or from the SRO being called away temporarily for other sheriff duties.
Randy Fairbanks said he was not faulting Sheriff Jim Hammond, but he said each year the commission is told that there are continuing difficulties with hiring enough School Resource Officers (SROs).
He said 44 SRO positions are now budgeted, and the sheriff was asking for two more slots, though only 32 are currently filled.
At the same time, Commissioner Fairbanks said county school officials have expressed optimism about use of School Safety Officers (SSOs), who are basically security guards at the schools.
He said, "From what I hear, we can get there (officers at every campus) from here (using the SSOs). I don't believe we can with the SSOs."
Commissioner Fairbanks said, "Do we put a Chevrolet at the schools rather than a Cadillac? This is a huge, huge subject. It doesn't sound like in the last two years we're making any headway."
He added, "It's unbelievable to me that we would pull an SRO away from a school to make a delivery to a hospital or something. Something's going to happen while he's gone."
Sheriff Hammond said it is much more difficult to hire SROs than SSOs. He said it takes about a year of training for an SRO, and he said they are often ready to move on to another step on their career path after about four years on the job.
He said SROs are much more involved with students, including mentoring them, while SSOs are basically on the perimeter of the campus. He said the SSOs do not have the same certification as SROs.
Commissioner Tim Boyd, who brought up the topic, said, "A few years ago we were told that for $4 million we could have an SRO at every school. But the whole idea was killed when we couldn't recruit enough SROs.
"Just a couple of days ago a child was found with a gun at Brown Middle School, which has no SRO. It's just a time bomb until something is going to happen and someone really gets hurt at a school without an SRO.
"It really, really bothers me that we can't get over this hump of hiring SROs."
Commissioner Boyd said a caller told him that the number of SROs on duty is actually in the low 20s, instead of 32.
He noted that county school official Justin Robertson was high on the SSO program and indicate the schools would like to hire more.
Sheriff Hammond said, "They are doing a good job, but they don't rise to the level of an SRO or a police officer." He said they are often retired police officers willing to keep working.
The sheriff said, "For a stopgap measure it's a good idea. It's better than having nobody."
Commissioner Greg Martin questioned why two more SRO slots were being proposed "when we can't fill many of the ones we have." He questioned whether some of that funding should be shifted to SSOs.
Commissioner David Sharpe said, "At current pay rates, for $4.3 million we could have an SSO at every school. I think we need to explore that more." He said $3.6 million is being budgeted for the limited number of SROs.
He said, "It would be irresponsible of us not to entertain that. I think it is something we should really look hard at this year."
Katherlyn Geter, another commissioner, said, "I think all of us want a quick resolution to this issue. We can't keep going down this road. It is not doing justice to our kids."