Two days following Wilson County Board of Education’s decision to ask the Wilson County Commission for school resource officers at every school in the county, SROs showed up – at Lebanon elementary schools.
On Monday, Wilson school board member and SRO Greg Lasater made a motion Director of Schools Mike Davis draft a letter to County Mayor Randall Hutto and the county commission requesting SROs in every school in the county. The board voted 5-0 in favor of the plan.
On Wednesday, SROs were added to Lebanon elementary schools, but the county isn’t footing the bill.
According to SRO division Capt. Gary Keith with the sheriff’s department, the money is coming solely from city schools, at least for the remainder of the school year. And Keith said each SRO costs about $57,000 annually for salary and benefits with an initial investment of an additional $11,000 for uniform, training, vehicle, etc.
Lebanon Director of Schools Scott Benson said discussions to add the additional SROs started just shortly after a school shooting happened in Newtown, Conn., that resulted in 27 deaths, including 20 first-graders.
“We have to do whatever we need to do to keep our schools safe,” Benson said. “We can’t put a price tag on that.”
With SROs currently at Winfree Bryant Middle School built two years ago and Walter J. Baird since the mid-1990s, all Lebanon schools now have an officer presence.
“The sheriff’s department wasn’t sure how quickly we could get this done,” Benson said. “The word came down really quickly. I’ve already gotten several calls and emails saying how appreciative they are of this.”
But Keith said the need to have SROs at every school in Wilson County remains with about 13 more officers in demand.
“I don’t care what the cost is,” Keith said. “Nothing rates higher than our children. We’ve got some plans in place, and we’ve got to move quickly. But it’s the funding; that’s the issue.”
Keith said in addition to costs involved, there are also staffing hurdles left to cross.
“You can’t just pull 13 officers away from other divisions,” he said. “They run tight as it is. We will be bringing in new officers and possibly sending some to the academy. It’s going to be a strain, but we’ve got to get this done.”
Keith said an SRO posted at a school is more than just an armed guard.
“When you think of an SRO, you might just think of an armed guard at the school, but there’s so much more,” Keith said. “They are a counselor, a person the children can look up to, a leader. They have to work with the courts on juvenile cases. It goes far beyond just a person walking around the school with a gun.
“Not every police officer can be placed in a school. We are looking for someone who wants to be personable and maybe looking to further their training or education.”
But Keith said with the Tennessee legislature currently considering measures to make SROs mandatory at schools across the state, Wilson County will be ahead of the curve, thanks to former Sheriff Terry Ashe, who started the program about 20 years ago.
“Sheriff Ashe brought it here,” he said. “Thank goodness for that.”
Benson said the latest round of SRO additions came with help from state Rep. Mark Pody, Wilson Mayor Randall Hutto, Sheriff Robert Bryan, Lebanon police Chief Scott Bowen, school board chairman Steve Jones and others.
Keith said until more SROs can be placed, there is a temporary solution.
“We have upped our patrol division near schools until the needs can be met,” Keith said.