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SRO program adds security for some schools

Mary Hinds • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 9:58 PM

Since Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn., some in Wilson County may ask how safe are the schools. Thanks to the perseverance of some county officials, the answer seems to be safer than most.

"A tragedy happened in this county, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the families," Sheriff Robert Bryan told Wilson County commissioners during his law enforcement report. "Are our schools safe? Yes, but we can always do more."

Bryan said Wilson County can thank the commission and the Wilson County Board of Education for having the foresight to fund school resource officers in county middle and high schools. SROs are county deputies assigned to county schools and handle everything from custodial issues to students fights to students who bring drugs and/or weapons to campus. He also singled out former Sheriff Terry Ashe for making the program a reality in the county.

"He got this program started and made it what it is today," he said.

Ashe not only began the program in the county, but he continued to make sure it was funded. One of his last acts as sheriff before his retirement was to go before the school board and request it fund SROs so budget cuts in his department wouldn't leave schools with without an officer on campus.

"Now you know why [Director of Schools] Mike Davis and I worked so hard to keep the SROs in the schools," Ashe said Friday within hours of the shooting.

Bryan said Monday night he didn't know if an SRO could have prevented what happened in Connecticut, but having an armed officer on the campus would have given those 20 student victims a fighting chance.

"An SRO would have been a heck of an obstacle," he said, adding he plans to meet with the director of schools and the Wilson Emergency Management Agency to see what other steps can be taken to improve campus safety.

"Now the finger pointing will begin in Connecticut," Bryan said." The question is how can we learn from it and prevent it from happening here."

During his education report, Davis told commissioners secured vestibules are installed at Southside Elementary and at W.A. Wright Elementary, leaving only Watertown High School without one, but one will be included in the new high school under construction there.

"Then all our schools will have one," Davis. "Everyone will have to go through the principal's office to enter the school. It just adds another layer of security. Every time you put a barrier between you and the street, that's a good thing."

County school board member Greg Lasater is himself an SRO in county schools and has strongly supported the program every time it has come before the board. He said he fought with other board members about assigning an SRO to Gladeville Elementary.

He said SROs don't just deal with bullies or fights on campus.

"It's more than just having a police officer in the building," he said. "The kids come to trust the officer and will talk to him."

That trust can lead to students being comfortable enough to tell the officer if a student has told others he plans to bring a gun to school. Lasater also wants to see more training for teachers on how to react to dangers on campus and a crisis team at each school to take charge in an emergency.

"We don't need to wait for something to happen here," he said.

Lasater wants to see SROs in every county elementary school as well. His point is a good one given what happened at the elementary school in Connecticut and he is sure to find a receptive audience for funding more SROs.

"People ask why we need armed officers in a school," Bryan said. "This is why. An SRO might have prevented that tragedy by acting as a deterrent."

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