By Brian Livingston / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
In the wake of the tragic deaths of 20 elementary school children and six adult school administrators and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the hot topic of gun control and school safety reached a fever pitch.
In the days following the massacre, Lauderdale County School District officials and authorities with the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department began meeting on a course of action to ensure the safety of children and staff while giving parents peace of mind.
As a result of those meetings, law enforcement officers trained as School Resource Officers (SRO) have been patrolling more hallways and campuses of the county school district than ever before.
"In the aftermath of that tragedy we began to look more closely at how we can protect our children in better ways," said Randy Hodges, superintendent of the Lauderdale County School District. "In talking with Sheriff Billy Sollie and his staff we came to the conclusion that we could do more. The conclusion we reached was putting SROs on every campus."
In a recent live shooter drill held at West Lauderdale Elementary School, it was evident from the response time that the children and staff were vulnerable. The scenario that was set up called for the SRO on campus to be the first target of one or more shooters. The further safety of the children and staff was left up to the first law enforcement officers to arrive on the scene.
Organizers of the drill held last week assumed the SRO on any campus would be the first person to be eliminated. That scenario was more to test the reaction and procedures of both law enforcement and school staff to a live shooter incident. But the consensus among school district and sheriff's department officials is that the SRO would be a hard nut to crack.
"In order to become an SRO you have to be a full time law enforcement officer," Hodges said. "That in itself is a clear advantage for the officer himself and the staff in the sense a highly trained individual is on campus."
Hodges' goal was to have an officer on every campus. If the campus, such as Clarkdale, has all of the elementary, middle school and high school facilities at one site, then one SRO would be sufficient to cover the campus. But as with West Lauderdale Elementary School, an officer was necessary to provide security given the isolation of the campus.
"Shortly after Sandy Hook we placed officers on all the campuses but because a couple didn't have the SRO training, they weren't armed," Hodges said. "Toward the end of the year they were all trained and certified so next school year will begin with armed uniformed officers at each campus."
Sollie said the SRO program has been in place for several years at the county level. This program of deputies in schools was begun in the 1997-1998 school year and was paid for by "Cops in Schools," a federal grant that lasted for four years. Now those salaries are paid by the school district, which reimburses the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, Sollie said.
Charlotte Parker, who is the business manager for the Lauderdale School District, said the cost of paying for the officers falls on the district since the grant money has run out.
"The sheriff's department does the schedule and keeps up with the hours the SROs work then they send us a bill," Parker said.
In all, eight SROs will be on the district payroll in the coming school year.
After Newtown, Sollie remarked that, "Some of our campuses are wide open."
Not so much anymore.
"Nothing is fool proof but we can make it much harder and maybe change someone's mind with all the schools having SROs," Sollie said.
Since 1953, the use of School Resource Officers has grown across the nation. The SRO programs were founded as collaborative efforts by police agencies, law enforcement officers, educators, students, parents and communities.
Rosemary Harris, principal of West Lauderdale Elementary School, said the presence of an SRO is a huge comfort, not only to her personally but to the staff and students.
"We realize an SRO is not the end to all cures but it is a good thing to have that officer on campus," Harris said. "He is right there to help out not only with law enforcement issues but school issues as well."
SROs typically have additional duties that include mentoring and conducting presentations on youth-related issues.
Robbie McClure has been an SRO at Southeast Lauderdale High School for many years and views the students as his adoptive children.
"I just love these kids," McClure said. "This is my dream job to be here on campus all school year and see these kids every day."
Harris said the children's response to the SRO has been nothing but positive.
"They feel safer," Harris said. "But make no mistake. They know why the officer is here. They know the reasons behind that. Kids these days may not say much but they are very perceptive. They understand what has occurred in the world."
Hodges said the SROs in the coming school year may rotate throughout the campuses. He said Sollie will make out the schedules. Rotating schools allows the SROs to get acquainted with the layout of all the schools. Although, according to Sollie, there may be some schools who might not be particularly warm to the idea of their favorite SRO going to another school.
"Robbie McClure has been at Southeast High School since the program was begun," Sollie said laughing. "The administrators and students might not like me too much if I pull him out."
Officials hope the specially trained law enforcement officers will provide each campus with the deterrent that sadly Sandy Hook Elementary did not have.
"There's a lot of bad things happening around us, but good people will protect them," Hodges said. "That's the message that we think is important for the children, staff and parents to understand."