ERWIN — Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said perhaps the best compliment paid to the county’s student resource officer program came from a student as Chief Deputy Frank Rogers was visiting one of the schools.
“(Rogers) was doing a walk-through in one of the schools, and a little boy walked up to him, he didn’t know who he was other than he was just a policeman, that he was a deputy, and he said ‘Mr. policeman, I’m glad you’re here,’ ” Hensley said.
The last full day of classes for Unicoi County students for the 2012-13 school year was just a little more than a week ago, and Hensley reflected on the program’s first year and discussed future plans.
A trained, full-time officer was placed in each of the county’s schools after students returned from Christmas break. These officers were to remain in the schools at least through the end of the school year.
Hensley spearheaded the effort to get the officers in the schools in response to the Newton, Conn., school shooting in December.
“After the Connecticut shooting, there was no question after what I had seen up there, I had to put officers in all the schools,” Hensley said.
Hensley said he met with Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson, Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown and governmental leaders throughout the county. Through this collaborative effort, the sheriff’s department placed officers at Unicoi County High School and Temple Hill Elementary School.
The town of Unicoi provided funding for a county officer to be placed at Unicoi Elementary School. The Erwin Police Department placed officers at Unicoi County Intermediate School and Unicoi County Middle School. The school system budgeted the funding to place an officer at Rock Creek Elementary School.
Officers were already in place at the middle school and high school prior to the implementation of the countywide program. The sheriff’s department absorbed the costs of these two positions after state funding for the Safe Schools program was cut prior to the 2012-13 school year.
School officials said feedback on the SRO program from parents, students and members of the community has been positive.
“The SRO program has been very successful this year,” Brown said. “We have had positive feedback from staff, parents and the community.”
Intermediate School Principal Debbie Lamie said her school saw an increased number of students this year, as some Love Chapel Elementary School students were relocated there in August after a sinkhole was discovered on the school’s grounds.
“This really made the parents feel more secure that there was someone here in case we needed some help of any kind, that he was here throughout the day,” Lamie said.
Temple Hill Elementary School Principal Angie Vaughn also said feedback from the community has been extremely positive, and she said the partnership that led to the SRO program was “best for the kids.”
“The parents are glad the SRO is in the school, especially in light of what happened in December, and I’m very pleased that our school system responded so quickly to get them in place,” Vaughn said.
Uncertainty of funding for the SRO program is the primary reason it was implemented only through the end of the 2012-13 school year, Hensley said. The sheriff said officials wanted to see if state or federal funding for such programs would become available. Brown said she has not yet received any information concerning federal funding and has requested information from the state in any state grant funding that may be available for SRO programs.
Hensley said he plans on meeting with school officials and the county’s governmental entities in the coming weeks to see what can be done fiscally to continue the program. Brown said she plans on meeting with Hensley next week to discuss plans for the 2013-14 school year.
“I plan on working closely with the county and town of Erwin to continue the program,” Brown said. “The town of Erwin has included the funding for the SRO that they funded this year, and currently we have included the funding for the position we funded this school year.”
Hensley said he wants to keep officers in schools, as well as see officer coverage for Love Chapel Elementary School, which will hold classes in modular units beginning next year. He said he is confident county officials will be able to work something out to keep the SROs in schools.
“There’s no doubt we’re doing the right thing, and we’re going to continue to do it, whatever it takes,” Hensley said. “We live in a different world now than we did 10 years ago, and we have to adapt to different circumstances and we have to look at things differently than we did 10 years ago.”