Schools to consider on-campus officers at elementary schools in light of shootings
Last modified: Jan. 23
Officials nationwide are grappling with the reality of the need for increased security in the wake of the mid-December Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Those officials include Ashe County commissioners, who are also etching out a plan to better safeguard students.
County commissioners met with administrators with the Ashe County School System Tuesday afternoon to discuss possible options in protecting the county’s five public schools in the event of a school shooting.
School system officials and commissioners are currently exploring the possibility of implementing a school resource officer in each of the county’s three elementary schools.
Two SROs are currently assigned to Ashe County High and Ashe County Middle schools.
School officials would like to have this same level of security at Mountain View, Blue Ridge and Westwood elementary schools.
After some preliminary research, Ashe Sheriff James Williams said it would cost tax payers approximately $85,000 to $100,000 to fund each additional SRO.
This cost would include the officer’s vehicle, equipment, salary, benefits and training.
Williams said he has been in contact with deputies within his department who have expressed interest in the positions.
Concerned by the burden on taxpayers, Commissioner Gerald Price asked Johnson if any other options existed.
“Has the school board of Ashe County genuinely and truly looked at other options, for example, teachers taking concealed carry permit training?” asked Price.
Extrapolating the figures provided by the sheriff for the total cost of footing the bill for additional SRO’s (including the purchase of a squad car) and the cost of protecting the students the entire time they are enrolled in the school system, Price reasoned this would cost approximately $3 million.
“For the benefit of the 85-year-old lady who can’t buy her groceries, medicine, or pay her light bill, we need to think of them,” said Price. “We took an oath to serve the public, not just one entity.”
Ashe School Superintendent Donnie Johnson said the school system has looked into a “buzzed-in system” where visitors of the school would have to receive security clearance and be properly identified before they would be allowed to enter a school building.
This type of system would cost approximately $7,500 per door, said Johnson.
Commissioner Gary Roark inquired about the possibility of contracting with a security agency to provided guards at the schools instead of resource officers.
Roark said this would cost approximately $26,000 per guard, including equipment.
“I would rather have a trained law enforcement officer, as opposed to a security company,” said Williams. “When going that route, you don’t know what kind of background checks they do or how they are trained. I feel the parents would much rather see trained officers with years of experience under their belt rather than someone outside of the county.”
Williams also said he has received information that school boosters with Westwood Elementary have expressed interest in donating $16,000 for the purpose of an on-campus SRO.
“There is a great desire to get this done,” said Williams.
“The SRO is about the best way we can go,” added Commissioner Judy Poe.
Not including salaries, Williams said the initial startup costs for the additional officers would not be recurring and the vehicles used by them would not be rotated out for another three years.
Williams added that having a police car in the parking lot alone could be a “big deterrent” to potential shooters who know they will have someone firing back at them if they chose to attempt to injure students.
Other commissioners voiced their support.
“We are all aware of the costs involved,” said Commissioner Larry Rhodes. “I don’t know if any of us can put a value on a life.”
Johnson added that the on-campus SRO is the first point of contact all visitors have at the high school and middle school.
Another issue commissioners and school administrators were tasked with was what to do with the former West Jefferson Elementary School building that contains the Ashe Learning Center and four pre-K classrooms: Would the center also receive officers?
Johnson said these classrooms report back to their respective home schools and would not be at the center if room existed at the elementary schools.
In addition, the center does not have an official school code.
Commissioners also pointed to the close proximity of the West Jefferson Police Department, which frequents the building while officers are on patrol.
Commissioners will reconvene at 2 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4 to discuss the matter further before possibly taking action on the option of putting SROs at the elementary schools during its 3:30 p.m. meeting in the third floor courtroom of the courthouse.