A decrease in funding has led to the elimination of two of the three student resource officer positions in Unicoi County, but Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown and Sheriff Mike Hensley say the plan they have developed to address the situation will create an even safer environment for Unicoi County’s students.
Brown said the student resource officer program began more than a decade ago with a grant program known as Cops in Schools. Funding from the grant allowed for the hiring of the first SRO in Unicoi County. Brown said the school system later received state funding through the Safe Schools program, with some of the funding being used for SRO positions.
Brown said that in the past, these funds have been used to reimburse the sheriff’s department for two of the SROs placed in county schools, as SROs must be employees of the sheriff’s department. The salary of Lt. Jimmy Erwin, who supervised the other two full-time SROs, is paid solely from the sheriff’s department budget. Erwin’s office was located at Unicoi County High School, where another SRO was stationed. The county’s other SRO was placed at Unicoi County Middle School.
“In the past, between the grants, between Safe Schools, we were able to reimburse the sheriff’s department for the SROs,” Brown said.
However, Brown said Unicoi County, like other schools systems across the state, has seen a decrease in the funding put toward its SRO program. She said grants for the SRO program are no longer available and that funding through the Safe Schools program has decreased consistently year after year. This year, the school system received $12,000 through the Safe Schools program, Brown said, adding that the salary and benefits of the two SROs the school system reimbursed was approximately $77,000.
With the funding decrease, Brown said the school system would not have the funds available in its budget to be able to reimburse the sheriff’s department for the two SRO officers outside of the one funded by the sheriff’s department, but said she and Hensley have come up with a plan that would keep a law enforcement presence in the county’s schools. Both said that this plan, along with the continuation of previously implemented safety and security measures, would strengthen school safety and officer visibility.
“With these cuts, the safety is not going to be jeopardized at all,” Brown said.
Through this plan, Erwin would retain his supervisory role and will remain on site at the high school, working there as needed. Hensley said officer Daniel Honeycutt, who has prior SRO experience, would soon begin training to work as a full-time SRO at Unicoi County High School, also covering the adjacent middle school. Brown said he has also discussed the matter with Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson, and Erwin Police officers will regularly patrol the areas around Erwin schools.
“Even though those two positions have been cut, there are still going to be people,” Brown said. “They’re probably going to have more visibility since we’re working together with the chief of police with Erwin and sheriff’s department than we’ve had in the past,” Brown said.
Hensley said Lt. Jason Tilson will soon begin SRO training to serve as the SRO at Unicoi Elementary School as well as patrolling the town of Unicoi. Hensley also said officers with the sheriff’s department will conduct walkthroughs of the county’s schools while on regular patrol duty.
“We’re going to take care of the children while they’re at school,” Hensley said. “The schools will be patrolled.”
Brown said measures already in place, such as regular fire and school lockdown drills, would continue. Hensley said officials have an emergency plan for each school on paper and said the D.A.R.E. program would continue at all grade levels. All of the school system’s athletic events will also be covered by officers, Hensley said.
“So everything that you’ve seen in the past will still be there, with probably even more of a presence with us being able to work with the chief of police and the sheriff’s department,” Brown said.
Because the school system will no longer be able to provide the sheriff’s department with reimbursement for the SRO program, Hensley said he intends to bring the matter before the Unicoi County Commission to see what assistance it may be able to offer.
“When it comes to our school children, I think the County Commission will take a hard look at it,” he said. “I’m not going to say they will fund it, but I’m sure they will take a hard look at it, and they know myself and Ms. Brown have took immediate and appropriate action to work with it right now.”
But as for right now, Hensley expressed confidence that the issue has been resolved for this fiscal year.