By Dani Palmer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — During a time when safety has been thrust to the forefront of school policy and parent concerns, there are still challenges to face, education officials say, but a new grant this year could provide a better sense of security.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller's office conducted a needs assessment study last year, even before the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, that showed interest around the state in expanding or creating school resource officer (SRO) programs. The study had a total of 1,149 constituents across Indiana, including parents, teachers, administrators and law enforcement personnel.
Senate Enrolled Act 1 was passed and signed into law during this year's legislative session, providing a total of $20 million in funding to Indiana schools interested in a $50,000 per year SRO grant. The money also allows schools to complete security assessments and install enhancements like bullet proof glass.
"Many schools and law enforcement already have some sort of relationship, but this just helps cement relations," Zoeller said.
The grant's not intended for an officer to just sit at the front door and watch for potential threats, he said, as "there's no such thing as 100 percent protection."
Rather, it's meant to help build a level of trust and respect between law enforcement and students that often may misunderstand each other. In some cases, he said, teachers have even asked officers to mentor kids to help keep them out of the criminal justice system. States like Virginia and Pennsylvania have similar grants available.
Anderson Community Schools already has a resource officer in both the high school and middle school -- spending about $200,000 a year from the district's general fund to pay for the off-duty officers.
Last year, when a Highland Middle School student brought an unloaded handgun to school, it was two students who approached an SRO to tell him the teen with the gun had made threats. Some parents then were demanding more security, such as metal detectors.
Chief Operations Officer Joe Cronk is leading ACS' efforts to submit an application for the grant, and while the district is still working on that application, he said, it would likely use the money on measures like ID-card access readers for doors, metal detectors and enhanced security surveillance systems.
"We live in a time where we must take security seriously. I am happy to see grants like this become available to help keep our most treasured possessions - our children - safe," Cronk said.
While ACS has already developed a strong relationship with the Anderson Police Department, he said, the district "would like to see an increased police presence in our schools." Whenever they're in the vicinity of a school and have no other priority runs, Anderson police will often stop by and complete walk-throughs.
Zoeller said he's aware of multiple schools' concerns regarding the longevity of the program, as many have "been burnt" by legislative changes before. But he added that it has a better chance of becoming annually funded if schools take advantage of the grants.
Frankton-Lapel Community School Corp. had resource officers years ago before budget cuts forced the district to make tough decisions — one of which was to eliminate the SRO positions, Superintendent Bobby Fields said.
While the district has other security measures in place, such as cameras and buzzers at school entrances, Fields said Frankton-Lapel is planning to apply for the grant to hire SROs again.
"Any hurdle you can throw in the way of somebody like that, an active shooter, gives you more time for police to arrive. It would help greatly," Fields said.
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