County discusses school safety, officers

By Jeff Linville - jlinville@mtairynews.com
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DOBSON — School safety has been a hot topic over the past month and came up during county officials’ recent retreat.

Commissioner Larry Phillips said last week that protecting children had been mentioned to him by many parents, and as taxpayers they would be willing to support measures to make this happen.

When Sheriff Jimmy Combs and Chief Deputy Lauren Osborne appeared before the Surry County Board of Commissioners at the retreat to talk about the proposed jail expansion, Phillips brought up this other issue.

In just Surry County Schools, the district has 18 campuses. The three high schools and the four middle schools all have SROs, Phillips noted, referring to school resource officers. That leaves 11 elementary schools without an officer.

“People are concerned; they want more protection,” said Phillips. Since this is a government by the people, and the people want this, then the board should discuss the matter.

Officers at the middle school are partially funded by a grant, noted Commissioner Van Tucker. Adding 11 officers to the payroll without any grant support would be a big cost, so the public needs to be aware of that.

Tucker pointed out a grant proposal that the commissioners approved just a few days before the retreat.

State Funding

The General Assembly allocated a total of $7 million to be spread across the state to fund salaries for SROs, the proposal says. It is the intention of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to award this amount each year.

Dr. Travis Reeves, school superintendent, said that while there will be competition for those monies, “I feel confident we will receive some funds.”

The four middle schools first got SROs with the 2014-15 school year thanks to a state grant that paid $160,000 with a 50/50 match by the county. This paid the officers’ salaries, benefits plus all the equipment a new officer needs such as a patrol car, laptop computer, uniforms, handgun, cuffs and other tools of the trade.

Once those initial purchases were made, then the recurring grant paid for much of the cost of keeping the officers in place.

This year the state has decreed that no more than $28,000 per position would be given for salaries and 10 percent more for training (or $2,800 each).

For four officers this would be $112,000, a big drop from $160,000. Making matters worse is that the county won’t get all four jobs approved for the grant.

The state has decided to base funding on needs-based criteria. The three factors are small county supplemental funding, disadvantaged student supplemental funding, and the rates of crime and violence in elementary and middle schools.

Based on Surry’s stats, Reeves told the county board that it looks like the state would only help fund two of the four spots.

This would mean only $56,000 for salaries and $5,600 for training, or $61,600 total.

Chief Deputy Osborne said the full cost of employing the four officers in 2018-19 would be $230,591. Minus the grant, the county will have to cough up $169,000 for the four spots.

Sarah Bowen, county finance officer, said the grant received last year accounts for 81 percent of the cost of the program this fiscal year. With the drop in grant, the state will only be funding 26.7 percent of the officers next year.

The three high school SROs are paid for through funding for at-risk students, officials pointed out.

If four middle-school officers cost $230,600 a year (regardless of where the money is sourced), then adding an officer at each of the 11 elementary schools would appear to add $634,150 to the budget — with no matching grants at all.

Local need

Looking at the cut in funding to Surry County, Commissioner Phillips wasn’t pleased with the way the state ranked importance. A kid’s life is just as precious in a rural county as an urban county, he said.

One of the criteria that hurt Surry in ranking was its crime and violence rating compared to its peers. In stats that the sheriff presented to the board, the four middle schools had a total of 11 assaults and 20 fights in 2017-18.

A statewide crime report that came out last year showed that across all three Surry County school districts, there were 273 students suspensions, a rate of 7.76 per 100 students. The state average was two and a half times that high at 19.6 per 100 students.

Combs said these numbers suggest that the SRO program already having an impact at the middle schools.

Buck Golding, in his last night as a commissioner before retiring, asked why the SRO activity sheet listed 603 events of “student counseling.”

Sometimes officers pull kids aside to have a word with them, explained Combs. The SRO might sense that something is off, like a child withdrawing from friends and activities, and so he or she acts proactively to head off further downward spiraling. Sometimes the kids seek the officer out for talks. A boy might feel more comfortable talking to someone he has gotten to know through the DARE programs rather than seek out a guidance counselor or assistant principal.

Bill Goins, the Central Middle principal, was in attendance and pointed out that sometimes home issues and even custody disputes can spill over onto school times. The SROs can be another layer of support to students.

Do school officers get special training for this counseling, asked Golding.

Yes, said Combs, this is all part of the SRO training. As important as anything they do, the SROs lay a foundation of trust. It helps with making the kids comfortable talking to the officers at school, but also develops a trust and appreciation for law enforcement that can extend into adulthood, making them better citizens.

It’s going to be very expensive to provide SROs, said Tucker, but he believes it is worthwhile to keep the middle schools covered, considering the tragedies seen across the country.

After that discussion, the county board agreed to apply for the middle- school grant and keep the four SROs going. The board didn’t take any action on the idea of SROs for elementary schools.

Volunteers

As $634,000 is a lot of money to put SROs at elementary schools, Phillips asked what the board thought about the recent news that Rockingham County is looking at volunteer officers for schools.

On Wednesday N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger and Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page were among speakers at a news conference promoting volunteer school officers.

“Enough is enough today in North Carolina,” Page said. “Taking no action toward school safety and not protecting our teachers and children is totally unacceptable.”

The program was approved by the General Assembly in 2013 (following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut) and is getting attention after the Florida high school shooting. The program lets school districts reach agreements with law enforcement for volunteer officers with arrest powers. They must meet gun proficiency and other standards.

Phillips asked Combs about the viability of such a program here.

Combs said the volunteers would have to be “auxiliary deputies,” certified to carry a firearm, and would need two years of service either as a civilian cop or a military policeman.

Phillips asked Combs if he would look into this and let the board know what he can find on this topic.

Combs said he could do that. Also, he added, in the short term, he said he has patrol officers on duty every day, so if the county wanted, he could have them make a stop at a school each day to provide a recurring presence.

No motion was made on that suggestion. However, the auxiliary deputy issue could come up again at a county meeting this month.

The board meets this Monday at 6 p.m. in Dobson, then next at Mountain Park Elementary on March 19.

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By Jeff Linville

jlinville@mtairynews.com

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.