The Fight to Protect Every School in Hamilton County
By Commissioner David Sharpe
The effort to ensure each public school building has a full-time safety officer has finally gained momentum. This is welcome news. I am an on-the-record supporter of increasing school safety across Hamilton County Schools, and it's encouraging to see us making strides on the issue.
I applaud our Superintendent, Dr. Robertson, and the School Board for making progress on this issue, and I will continue to do all I can to see that they have the necessary support from the Hamilton County Commission to implement the new plan to cover every school in our community.
Unfortunately, a small segment of people have decided to wield the issue of school safety as a political tool in a cynical attempt to scare parents and score cheap political points.
Let me be very clear: school safety is not and should never be a partisan issue. Surely we can all agree that safer schools are a good thing. Yet, my campaign opponent’s allies recently blanketed our community with repulsive attack mailers in an attempt to distort my
record of advocacy around school safety.
Where I Stand
I unapologetically support each school in Hamilton County having a full-time, on-site security officer. Period. Anyone suggesting differently is either unaware of the facts or deliberately trying to mislead you. Below is a history of my record on the issue:
History of School Safety in Hamilton County
To understand the current developments in this area, it's important to understand a little history. For decades school safety was solely in the hands of the Hamilton County Sheriff's office, and for just as long, the Sheriff's office struggled to fill the positions. For years only around 1/3 of schools in Hamilton County were staffed by a full-time security officer.
The County Sheriff repeatedly told the County Commission that he was unable to secure enough personnel, given all their other responsibilities of the department, to fully staff the school safety program. Though he recognized its importance, the Sheriff ultimately said that school safety was simply low on the list of priorities. During times of stress, the Sheriff redirected school security personnel away from schools to cover other needs in the County, thereby creating additional gaps in school security. Ultimately, the Sheriff explained his decision as being a matter of the legal obligations of his office:
"I am mandated by law to run a jail. I'm mandated by law to protect the courts and the civil process and the citizens out here. I'm not mandated by law to have the SROs [school resource officers]." --Sheriff Jim Hammond.
Source: After promising return of SROs by spring break, Sheriff Hammond announces different plans - News Channel 9 (March 8th 2021)
When this discussion emerged, many parents, myself included, were shocked to learn that there were no officers to cover every school building, that there was no plan to expand to every building, and that dozens of the SRO positions had been vacant or unfilled for over a decade.
New Solutions to Cover Every School Building
After years of being unable to solve this problem, it was clear we needed a new approach to fill the gaps in school security across the county. To their credit, the school board and former superintendent worked to get ahead of the curve by expanding and strengthening the school security program housed within the Hamilton County Department of Education rather than the one run by the Hamilton County Sheriff's office. In 2019, the Superintendent hired the first ever Student Safety Coordinator, Dr. James Corbin.
“What has happened is the school district is trying to pick up some of the slack from the sheriff’s department, and we are primarily covering the primary schools, while the sheriff’s department is taking care of the secondary schools.” -- Dr. James Corbin, HCS Student Safety Coordinator.
Source: Hamilton Co. Schools says Student Safety Officers raises standards for student protection - News Channel 9 (October 8th, 2021)
Dr. Corbin immediately began strengthening and modernizing the school safety officer program, hiring dozens of new full-time safety officers--most of them experienced law enforcement professionals with additional training to help them work with young people. Eventually, even though this program was successful, the financial limitations of the budget did not allow enough room to cover every school in the county.
My question was, who decides which schools deserve a full-time officer and which do not? Who is responsible for telling parents their children are not as important as others? This is a false choice, one we should never have to make. To me, it was (and still is) unconscionable that we would be forced to pick and choose when it comes to school safety. The answer was clear: we need to cover every school with full-time security professionals.
I talked with dozens of people looking for ways to close this funding gap without any additional burden on parents or taxpayers. Finally, after much public discussion about this issue, the Sheriff told the County Commission he did not see a way to close the gap within his office to find and hire security officers to cover every school.
A bipartisan consensus emerged that immediate action was necessary to protect our schools. In his 2021-22 budget, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger (R-Hixson) went so far as to include a proposal to transfer unused funding from the Sheriff's office program over to the Department of Education to fully fund full-time security officers in each school.
At the end of the day, I didn't feel confident in any of the solutions being proposed. This is why I introduced a proposal to take the program to full coverage—every school. No exceptions.
Below, you can look through the news coverage and public record around this effort. My primary concern is to ensure we have someone who wakes up every day thinking about the school they serve and how to make it safer.
Sources & News Coverage
Hamilton County commissioner proposes redirecting funds to school district's security officer program - Chattanooga Times-Free Press (June 13th, 2021)
HCS: SROs still being pulled from schools, district wants to expand SSO program - News Channel 9 (January 12th, 2021)
Sheriff Hammond addresses SRO shortage in Hamilton County Schools - Local 3 News (February 4th, 2021)
Budget shift: Hamilton Co. Mayor proposes reallocating funds to hire more school security - News Channel 9 (June 24th, 2021)
Hamilton Co. Schools says Student Safety Officers raises standards for student protection - News Channel 9 (October 8th, 2020)
Hamilton County Commission OKs $1 million for added school security officers - Chattanooga Times-Free Press (June 29th, 2022)
Hamilton County school board unhappy with SRO shortage as students continue in-person learning - Local 3 News (March 5th, 2021)
SCHOOL PATROL: Hamilton County Schools selects first-ever student security coordinator - Local 3 News (December 9th, 2019)