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Van Huss introduces bipartisan bill enabling off-duty police to work in schools

Zach Vance • Updated Feb 28, 2018 at 7:58 PM

In response to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting earlier this month, a Jonesborough state legislator released bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would enable off-duty, trained law enforcement officers to voluntarily work security at Tennessee public schools.

Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, along with Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, unveiled the School Safety Act of 2018 during a press conference at the Cordell Hull Building.

Van Huss’ bill would allow school systems to choose whether to participate in the law enforcement security program, but lawmakers cautioned that the legislation isn’t meant to be a permanent fix, as it would sunset in July 2022.

“I just sat down and thought through the process. It just seemed like common sense, and it seemed like what we needed to do,” Van Huss said by phone.

“I wanted to include the sunset because I don't know if this is permanent. This is a very quick thing. We still don't have the language for it. We'll hopefully have that tomorrow.”

As long as they’re certified by the Peace Officer Standards Training Commission, city police, county sheriff’s office personnel, constables, metro police officers, highway patrol troopers and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents would be eligible to provide security to schools while off duty.

Van Huss said he originally wanted military veterans to be eligible to provide security, but that presented additional challenges, like liability coverage and psychological evaluations.

Two certified law enforcement officers could be hired per school regardless of how many school resource officers the school already employs. Each officer providing security would be required to carry a loaded handgun.

The participating school systems would be able to regulate whether the hired law enforcement officers wear uniforms while providing security. Schools could also determine whether the hired officers carry their firearms openly or concealed, as well as regulate the use of carrying rifles.

Interested school systems would receive a list of officers wanting to participate from each law enforcement agency located within a 50-mile radius.

Under Van Huss’ bill, law enforcement agencies would be prevented from discouraging or punishing officers participating in the program.

For each day an officer worked, the state would pay $54 out of the civil asset forfeiture fund, with $2 going to the school system, $2 for administrative costs and $50 directly to the officer.

Officers would be paid monthly, and if the civil asset forfeiture funds ever expire, the officers would be paid from the state’s “rainy day fund.”

With roughly 1,800 schools across the state, assuming 25 percent of schools participated, Van Huss said it would cost the state about $8.5 million a year. If every school participated, the cost would jump to $39 million a year.

Since its release, Van Huss said the Tennessee Education Association has already given their support for the measure, and he is hopeful party leaders will also get behind the effort.

“I'm hopeful the rest of leadership will come onboard because it's something we need to get done for our kids,” said Van Huss, who has a 1-year-old daughter of his own. “As far as the challenge of the legislation, it's hard to say this early, but the only challenge I see is going to be the Finance Committee and how do we pay for it.”

Van Huss said some law enforcement agencies might be opposed to the bill because it would use their civil asset forfeiture funds, which is typically used for law enforcement expenses.

Once the language is finalized, the bill will be heard by the Civil Justice Subcommittee first, possibly as early as next week.

Van Huss is also cosponsoring another bill aimed at protecting schools, which cleared the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday.

House Bill 2208, carried by Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, would give school boards and superintendents the authority to adopt a policy permitting certain teachers and school personnel the ability to carry a concealed gun on school property. The proposal would allow one school employee per 75 enrolled students the ability to carry on school property.

In relation to schools safety, Johnson City Schools officials are planning a closed-door meeting Thursday to review their school safety plan and discuss possible changes. 

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