By MARIAN GALBRAITH
and BRIAN JUSTICE
The Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., has led to heightened concerns about safety, and Mayor Lane Curlee says Tullahoma will be looking into whether having a police officer assigned to each city school may be feasible.
“I think it is something to be considered,” he said Wednesday. “Every time a tragedy like this takes place someplace else, we definitely don’t want anything like that to occur in Tullahoma.”
In response to the Connecticut school shooting last Friday, Tennessee legislators, gun rights supporters and local law enforcement are considering new laws to employ armed school resource officers (SRO’s) to police the schools and/or to allow teachers to carry firearms into the schools.
Curlee said the Board of Aldermen will probably be discussing the SRO issue at upcoming meetings and “weighing the risks versus the benefits.”
“We want to do what’s best for the children,” he said. “We need to have a discussion.”
Curlee said the dialogue will probably involve input from parents, their children, teachers, principals and others.
“We all have a stake in this,” he said.
Although the idea to add six more officers — mirroring officer Joe Brown’s duties at Tullahoma High School — is easily said, it’s not easily funded.
The salaries and benefits related to adding six officers could cost more than $300,000, and where the money would come from would have to be determined, Curlee said.
“There’s no guarantee about whether we would be able to do it,” he said.
Pat Welsh, Tullahoma Board of Education chairman, echoed Curlee’s assessment.
“It could be done, but there’s a funding issue involved,” he said, adding he hopes something can be done to ensure safety.
Graves: Armed teachers shouldn’t be required to protect students
Coffee County Sheriff Steven Graves expressed some support for these ideas, but with certain reservations.
“In an ideal world, I’d love to have an SRO at every school, but it would be expensive, and I’m not sure the taxpayers would want to pay for all that right now,” he said.
Graves said the cost would have to include salary and benefits for the officer at each school, plus training, equipment and annual re-certification.
“I’d also hate to use this incident in Connecticut as a way of trying to force or shame people into spending that kind of money,” he said.
Graves said that right now, the Coffee County High and Middle Schools each have a dedicated SRO, an armed deputy who is trained and certified each year, but the six elementary schools and the Koss Center are only patrolled occasionally, not fulltime.
Graves added that he “happens to come from a long line of teachers,” many of whom own guns and have carry permits. He said he didn’t have a problem with permitted teachers bringing a gun to school for their own protection, but not as a means of protecting the students or the school as a whole.
“Teachers would need a lot of special training and annual re-certification if they were going to be held responsible for the safety of the students,” Graves said.
“They would need to learn how to shoot in high-stress situations and take other courses that our school resource officers like that.”
He said Dr. LaDonna McFall, Coffee County Schools director, called a recent meeting for school supervisors, law enforcement and Emergency Management Agency personnel to review the county schools’ safety policies.
The same group plans to meet again next month.
“We’re working toward a more comprehensive plan, where we all know what each other is doing during emergencies,” Graves said, “not just during shooting incidents, but also during tornadoes, fires, and things like that.
“We’re working on a plan to where we’ll know what the schools are doing as far as their safety and emergency procedures, and vice-versa, they’ll know what the rest of us are doing, and that way we’ll be able to coordinate our efforts better during these situations.”
Mental health issues also are concerns
Dr. Dan Lawson, Tullahoma City Schools director, provided his assessment.
“I have confidence our city, county and state leaders will discuss the issue thoroughly and react to that discussion,” he said, adding that it will probably involve talking about armed guards, armed SROs and arming teachers.
Lawson said tragic shootings have occurred not only in schools but have extended to a theatre and churches.
“It’s not just a school issue,” he said, “And I have great concern about the mental health issue. There’s danger no matter the setting, and there’s no rational reaction for such irrational acts that we’ve faced.”
Dr. Gail Holland, principal at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, said she thinks it’s a bad idea to bring guns into the schools, and that the whole discussion is just a “knee-jerk reaction” to a horrible tragedy.
“I can’t imagine teachers and principals being armed with guns at school,” Holland said.
“Statistics show over and over that children are safer at school than they are anywhere else.”
Holland added that she thinks we need stronger laws and enhanced penalties for incidents involving gun violence as well as better solutions to identify mental illness before it reaches dangerous levels.
“Even an SRO can be the wrong thing to do, in my opinion,” she said, “because guns are used to threaten people a lot more than they’re used for self-defense.
“Having an SRO is still not a guarantee of safety, and it can lead to a lot more tragic accidents.”
She said the Tullahoma school system already has extensive safety, evacuation and first responder procedures that are revised and upgraded on a regular basis.
“We have to have a safe environment in order for children to learn,” she said, “and bringing guns into the schools is completely counter-productive in that regard.”