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How Tennessee’s largest district plans to spend new money on school safety

Local governments across Tennessee paid to add 213 school resource officers this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.
Local governments across Tennessee paid to add 213 school resource officers this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.
Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

Before Tennessee offered grants for school districts to improve student safety following February’s deadly school shooting in Florida, education officials in Memphis were already forming plans to use local money to ramp up security.

Gerald Darling
Gerald Darling
Laura Faith Kebede

Shelby County Schools earlier this year set aside $2 million in local dollars to add 30 armed school resource officers and about $860,000 for more cameras and card access in and around school buildings.

But after a statewide review of school safety needs, the district is getting another $3.5 million to bolster security — $700,000 in recurring funds and $2.8 million in a one-time grant. The district plans to funnel that money to security system upgrades and more training and equipment for the new school resource officers.

The result: a massive infusion of resources into a position that district officials say has been essential for improving safety and climate in many schools, even with a budget that has been flat at $13 million for several years. For the first time, every school in the district will have a school resource officer for at least part of the week, who is trained in how to manage misconduct in a way that both protects students and teachers while defusing tense situations with students who face many stresses.

“The investment we’re getting now will only enhance what we’re already doing,” said Gerald Darling, the district’s chief of student services. “We appreciate it. But we don’t consider it a deal maker for us, getting this money.”

State education officials announced details of the new state dollars last week, seven months after Gov. Bill Haslam asked all districts to assess how prepared they are to protect students, and where they might be vulnerable in an emergency.

The review came amid an escalation of concerns about school safety following a February shooting where a student killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Lawmakers across the country proposed various responses, from restricting the types of guns available for purchase to arming teachers.

A bill in Tennessee to train some teachers to wield guns in classrooms fell flat. Instead, lawmakers agreed to distribute $35 million in new funds to districts with plans to bolster safety.

For more on school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know and learn how hiring more officers could have unintended consequences for students of color.

To qualify, districts had three weeks to complete a safety review of all schools with a law enforcement officer present.

For Shelby County Schools, that meant quickly organizing staff and pairing them with law enforcement officers to comb through more than 200 schools. That included dozens of charter schools the district authorizes.

In the end, the assessment concluded within the time window, and while district officials did not want to share details about the review’s findings so security gaps would not be exposed, Darling said they “didn’t find many vulnerabilities.” Every school in the district will benefit from the state grant, he said.

Other districts across Tennessee plan to hire more school counselors and child psychologists, buy better door locks and shatter-resistant glass, and improve visitor screening procedures, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. Statewide, local governments paid to add 213 new school resource officers.

“Students learn best in an environment where they feel safe and protected, so it is our responsibility to ensure our schools are secure, and this funding allows us to do just that,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen in a statement.

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