More than 300 new school resource officers have been placed in schools across Tennessee since lawmakers approved funding to make SROs available for every public school following the deadly shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville.
Lawmakers approved $230 million in new funding for school safety measures in the weeks following the Covenant shooting in March, including money to support an SRO in every public school in the state, funds for Homeland Security agents to be placed in each county to coordinate school security measures, and grant funding for public and non-public schools to install new security equipment.
Gov. Bill Lee first proposed new funding aimed at school security before the Covenant attack, but the legislature increased funding amounts following the tragedy, and passed the school safety package almost unanimously ― with four Democrats casting the only opposing votes.
Of the $230 million, $140 million is allocated for school resource officers, $54 million for school security upgrades, and $30 million for Homeland Security agents to coordinate school safety responses and $8 million for school-based behavioral health staff.
Accompanying the funding, lawmakers established new requirements for schools to lock exterior doors when students are present, and conduct annual incident command and bus safety drills, in addition to already-required intruder drills.
300 new SROs placed since July
Districts can use the $140 million in SRO funding to support SROs that have already been placed in schools, or to hire new SROs for schools that do not already have them.
Since funds became available in July, more than 300 new additional SROs were hired and placed in schools this year and more are in training, Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long told lawmakers this week. Schools have also used funds to offset costs already supporting existing SROs.
So far, the department has disbursed $101.6 million of the $140 million grant funds to 1,355 out of the 1,815 schools in the state.
The department has contacted every law enforcement agency that has not yet applied for SRO grant funding to help streamline the process.
“I personally called three agencies who had not completed the process and asked them to get it done, and we got those three agencies completed within a week,” Long said.
A hurdle to placing more officers is staffing shortages.
“One of the things that naturally takes a little time on this is getting the SROs trained by the local agencies,” Long said.
In the meantime, the agency has directed Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers to help patrol around schools. Troopers have conducted more than 58,400 school safety checks this year, Long said.
Long said that the department worked quickly to develop new software to streamline applications and MOUs from local law enforcement agencies. The agency began distributing the grant funding during the first week of July.
SRO placement rates low in urban centers
Statewide, middle and high schools are more likely to already have an SRO placed than elementary schools.
According to data from the department, 64% of public elementary schools have agreements with local law enforcement seeking to hire SROs, and 89% of those have placed a full-time SRO. Secondary schools have higher placement rates: 71% of middle and high schools have agreements with law enforcement and 94% of those have been provided an SRO. Many secondary schools already had SRO programs prior to the new funding.
Tennessee’s urban centers have some of the lowest SRO placement rates, through the end of September.
Davidson County has historically not placed SROs in elementary schools, due objections from school district leadership and staffing challenges. At first, when state grant funds came available, the district did not intend to apply for funds to staff SROs in elementary schools ― a move the governor decried as “a disservice to parents and teachers.” Instead, the district initially sought $3.375 million in state grants to support existing positions at middle and high schools in the district.
Later, despite years of pushback against officers in elementary schools, then-Mayor John Cooper announced a long-term goal to put at least one full-time officer on every MNPS campus. Police Chief John Drake announced in August that MNPD is recruiting 70 additional SROs to be trained and placed in MNPS elementary schools by the end of the 2023-24 school year. It will take some time before the schools are fully staffed. As of September, no MNPS elementary schools had an SRO, according to the Department of Safety, while all MNPS middle and high schools did.
Tennessee’s other major cities are also still working to recruit officers. In Shelby County, 28 of the 260 schools are covered by the district’s MOU with law enforcement, according to the Department of Safety, and 25 of those have an officer placed. Only 42 of Hamilton County’s 81 schools are covered by the county’s MOU, and of those, 32 have an SRO. Contracts are pending with the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Long said.
“The thing that we have found out from some of the larger departments is simply manpower, getting the manpower hired, getting them trained, getting them into the process,” Long said. “We’ve give them the full year of the mount of the grant to get that done, so they have a full fiscal year.”
School hardening measures funded
The department is also working to administer the $50 million in school security grant funding – which lawmakers approved to allow schools to take security measures like installing bulletproof film on windows, and improving security cameras and other tools.
“Each school is required to do a safety assessment and they can only utilize their funding for their high priority items,” said Shannon Gordon, chief operating officer for the state Department of Education.
So far, 233 school districts and charter schools are using grant funds, according to Tennessee Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds. The top uses for the grant funding are surveillance and communications equipment, access control technology, and window film.
“We have not denied any applications,” Reynolds told Gov. Lee during the agency’s budget hearing this week.
The Department of Safety has placed 56 Homeland Security agents in each county to help coordinate and educate school safety teams. The agency’s goal is to have all 122 such agents complete training by February.
Vivian Jones covers state politics and government for The Tennessean. Reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.