By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi superintendents said receiving state help to add armed law enforcement officers to campuses could be helpful, although a proposed grant program would not cover their full costs.
On Jan. 11, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves called for legislation to establish a $7.5 million grant program at the Mississippi Department of Education that would provide up to $10,000 to pay for a certified law enforcement officer at a public school.
Reeves’ proposal was part of a plan designed to enhance school safety. He also called for Mississippi courts to be required to report findings of mental incompetence to the FBI’s background check system to prevent those individuals from buying guns.
Reeves’ remarks came in response to December’s fatal school shooting in Connecticut. Many schools already have school resource officers, armed police officers who patrol their campuses during the school day. In some cases, local police or sheriff’s departments fund those officers. In others, districts foot all or part of the bill.
The Nettleton School District currently has one such officer to patrol its two campuses and is considering adding a second, Superintendent Russell Taylor said.
Money from the proposed program would help, he said, noting his district shares its current cost with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, which provides the SRO.
“We never want to make school seem like a prison, but I think times change and with everything going on today, I agree with the proposal of putting officers at all schools,” Taylor said.
“It costs a good bit more than that, but any money would help.”
Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said for his district it would cost more than $30,000 to add a school resource officer, pay that person’s benefits and equip him or her. Taylor said the cost to his district would be roughly the same.
Lee County currently has six armed SROs, stationed at Mooreville, Shannon, Saltillo, Guntown, Verona and the Lee County Improvement Center. The district pays the full salary of three of those and splits the cost on two others.
“I don’t know if a grant program where all you’d get is $10,000 would be beneficial,” Weeks said. “You won’t get an armed security guard for $10,000.
“You have some districts, if you gave them $10,000, they wouldn’t have enough to pay the rest. We’d also be thankful for any financial assistance we could get.”
Reeves’ proposal calls for the local community to fund the rest of the cost of adding such an officer. It notes that officers in the program would be required to train in the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy, which is used by law enforcement nationwide to train officers responding to shootings.
The Mississippi Department of Education also is considering efforts to promote school safety, such as making a stronger link between accreditation requirements and school safety issues, requiring additional safety assessments and mandating more safety training for educators.
“We appreciate the work of Lt. Gov. Reeves and other elected officials who are working to make sure our schools are safe learning environments,” Interim State Superintendent Lynn House said. “We share their concerns, and that’s why the MDE is looking at an array of possibilities to enhance our school safety policies and procedures.”
The Tupelo Public School District has five school resource officers and 16 school safety officers. The SROs are certified police officers who have been through state-mandated training and are armed. The SSOs patrol the school campuses to provide a safe environment and do not carry a weapon.
“The safety of our students and faculty is always at the forefront, and we are constantly looking for ways to make our campuses safer,” Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said. “At this time, I don’t anticipate TPSD participating in this program due to the fact that it is significantly underfunded.
“The $10,000 would help with training, equipment, travel and supplies for these individuals in our schools, but it would not even begin to address the salary and benefits for an additional officer.”
New Albany has three school resource officers for its four schools. Those at the middle and high school are funded by the police department, while the district pays for one at its alternative school.
“I would be in favor of the proposal if they appropriate new money to pay for it,” New Albany Superintendent Jackie Ford said. “I’m not in favor of taking $7.5 million out of an already strapped education budget.”
Ford said if the district had an additional $10,000 and could add an additional resource officer to its elementary school, it would do so.