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Commissioners: make schools safer, but not by arming teachers

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -- Three County Commissioners say they agree with Sheriff Jim Hammond's call to consider a variety of options to improve security in Hamilton County options.

But they oppose either permitting, or assigning, teachers to carry guns to served as armed 'crisis responders.'

"It's not the teacher's responsibility," District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham says. "The teacher's responsibility  is to educate our children to best of their ability."

"Their job and responsibility is as educators," Commission Chairman Larry Henry says. I don't believe we need to put them in the role of protectors."

"I'm not advocating we just let everybody line up, sign on the dotted line, then go home and get Grandpappy's gun, and sit in front of the schoolhouse, no," Sheriff Hammond says.

"But we do need to look at alternatives, because we'd bankrupt the County if we put Resource Officers in every school."

Commissioners have praised the Resource Officer (SRO) program, which assigns seasoned deputies and police officers to secure 22 of Hamilton County's 78 public elementary, middle and high schools.

Chairman Henry agrees that hiring or diverting 56 more officers to school duty isn't viable, financially.

"But when you consider the incident that happened at Sandy Hook (Elementary in Newtown, CT) what kind of price can you put on it," he asks.

In dollars, the costs are more significant. The additional training, coupled with wages and benefits, costs $80,000 the first year, Sheriff Hammond estimates.

Each year thereafter: $60-$65,000 per officer.

Henry would be willing to consider 'enlisting' military retirees or members of the Sheriff's Reserve to fill 'carefully defined roles' in school security.

"I'd want them to have firearms experience and training, and be cleared through background checks," he says.

"We have about fifty Reserve Deputies, volunteers," the Sheriff says.

"These are citizens that did not go through the police academy with all kinds of extra training. "These are folks who've had 80 hours of training, that authorizes them to do the same thing a policeman does."

Thursday, Commissioners voted to hire private officers and to raise the judges to improve security in General Sessions Courtroom #6.  The costs could exceed $30,000.

Commissioners maintain that securing schools won't come that cheaply.

"I can't tell you what you want to hear," District 4 Commissioner Dr. Warren Mackey says.

"Even having an officer in the building, there are so many points of entry that if a person wanted to break out a window and rush into a building, you couldn't stop that."

But he, and Graham, also believe that shouldn't stop Hamilton County from trying.

"The Sheriff needs to take the lead and tell us what he needs," Graham says.

Veteran Resource Officers Tim Mann (Red Bank High School) and T. J. Pickens (Sale Creek Middle & High School) maintain that it's not so much their guns, or their badges that make students feel more secure.

"Sometimes, you gotta show them there's a human side to police work," Deputy Mann told Channel 3 in a profile interview August 14.

"It takes time to build the rapport with (Sale Creek) kids,"Deputy Pickens told Channel 3 last May.,
"And to build that trust that they know that they can come to you."

Hamilton County students return from holiday break January 9.

Sheriff Hammond pledges to begin working with administrators, School Board members, and Commissioners "in the coming weeks" to weigh options.

"Questions of liability and training will come up no matter what we do," he says. "We need to look at everything.

Henry is hopeful that the 'meeting of the minds' will come before School Board members and Commissioners gather in February to review capital projects and spending.

"Every day that goes by, you have the consequences of delay," he says.


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