After the city of Loudon voted down a measure to keep two school resource officers in place at Loudon Elementary, Fort Loudoun Middle and Loudon High schools through the rest of the school year, the Loudon County Sheriff's Office has requested four additional deputies to patrol hallways and classrooms in the wake of high-profile school shootings nationwide.
Jimmy Davis, assistant chief deputy, said that along with other counties in the state, officials within his department thought it was critical to make the request to the county sooner than later.
"We feel it's important to ask them now," Davis said. "Usually we wouldn't in the middle of a budget year (ask) for additional personnel, but a lot of that's kind of out there and a majority of the counties in the state are doing the same thing, requesting additional SROs for safety in the schools."
He said currently the county school system has four schools with no SRO directly assigned to them. Steekee Elementary and Philadelphia Elementary, along with Eaton Elementary and North Middle schools, are currently sharing two officers. The elementary, middle and high schools in the city of Loudon are being patrolled by one officer.
Davis said that, for instance, if the SRO at the high school has to address a concern across town at the elementary school, the upper campus is left unsecure.
"I feel that we do need one for each school," Davis said. "Before some of the shootings happened, obviously the high school was our priority because a lot of violence within the school comes from the students. With the history of Columbine, we believe the high school is our priority."
While problems among students can crop up in the higher grades, SROs and school officials typically address domestic issues among parents in the lower grade levels.
"We feel that we owe it to the community to let them know that our kids are safe; that's our priority," Davis said. "We don't like the situation the way it is right now. We wouldn't have asked for it if we didn't think it was a needed cause."
According to the county finance office, funding four SROs for the remainder of this fiscal year would cost an estimated $80,000, including wages and benefits. If the county moves to pay for the officers into the future, the deputies will cost about $243,000 per year.
Sheriff Tim Guider made the request during a recent county budget committee meeting. Rather than make an immediate recommendation to Loudon County Commission about funding the officers, the committee chose to ask the city of Loudon about potential financial assistance.
"Their general consensus was to be supportive of it," Director of Finance Tracy Blair said about the committee. "But they requested that Mayor (Estelle) Herron send a letter to the city of Loudon to ask them — Loudon — if they had any intention to providing any financial support on SRO officers, and they want to see what that answer is hopefully at the next budget committee meeting before they move forward with the recommendation."
Blair said the query was made to the city because of the potential impact to the current and future budget.
"If this is approved, it will not only have an effect on the remainder of the current year budget, but, of course, next year's budget and going forward, so the budget committee just wondered what the city of Loudon would do."
Loudon City Council voted against allocating city funds for SROs more than once in 2012, and even balked at a compromise stipulating that the county would provide an additional $30,000 per officer.
City of Loudon Mayor Judy Keller did not foresee a different outcome this year.
"It was turned down every time, so I'd be surprised if the council was willing to do that now." Keller said. "I'm just saying it would really surprise me based on past experience."
County Commissioner Sharon Yarbrough said she would support further cooperation between the county and the school system in addressing future security needs, noting that SROs are just a "first step."
She said the county needed additional emergency response training and more secure entrances. "I think we need to take a more comprehensive look at the situation and at the county offices as well," Yarbrough said.
Davis said SROs receive training above and beyond that of a street deputy, including a 40-hour course on patrolling schools and handling safety concerns in an educational setting.
He said sheriff's departments have learned some important lessons from Columbine and similar incidents across the nation.
"With Columbine there was an issue of officers waiting outside until additional officers could get there to go in and handle the threat," Davis said. "Since then, we train our officers if there's one or two of you, you've got to go address the threat."
Noting that "time is everything," Davis said simply having an officer on site at each school would be a crucial safety improvement.
"Once somebody makes it into a school, within a few seconds they can start shooting, so we believe it's important to have an officer there to minimize those threats before they even happen," Davis said.