LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- School security officers at Jefferson County Public Schools would be allowed to carry firearms under a proposal discussed by the school board Tuesday.
The Jefferson County Board of Education is inching closer to adopting policies governing a new school security team after starting the 2019-20 school year without resource officers.
Arming an internal security team has been a divisive topic on the school board, with some suggesting that having armed officers in schools don’t necessarily make them safer.
But JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the “strong possibility” that lawmakers could make school safety funding contingent on having officers carry guns in schools coupled with concerns of hiring experienced officers to serve on the security team ultimately pushed the district toward arming the officers.
“This is obviously the most contentious part of the proposal and the most difficult part,” Pollio told board members Tuesday.
The board did not vote on the proposal, so whether the officers will be armed remains unresolved until final policies governing the internal JCPS security team are passed by board members.
Tuesday’s work session offered a first glimpse of what the officers may be carrying and what their uniforms may look like.
Minerva Virola, a retired officer with Louisville Metro Police who’s been working on the proposal for six weeks, said officers would have a shoulder holster for their firearm and a utility belt that includes handcuffs, a baton and two radios to communicate with JCPS and LMPD under the proposal.
The officers would wear khaki or gray pants, button-down shirts with ties, and blue blazers. They’d also be issued a badge, according to the proposal.
But what type of firearms and ammunition the officers would be issued was unclear Tuesday. Virola said those details are still being worked out by the district.
Three board members -- Chris Kolb, James Craig and Joe Marshall -- shared their misgivings about arming school security officers during Tuesday's work session.
Another, Corrie Shull, has previously expressed concerns with the prospect of armed officers patrolling school hallways. Board member Chris Brady also worried about officers using high-powered ammunition and said more nonlethal options should be explored.
Craig and Marshall suggested that the district explore the possibility that school leaders provide their input on whether they want armed officers in their buildings.
"From the conversations that I've had with administrators in my district, it's up and down depending on where you go," said Marshall, who represents District 4.
Pollio said that could be something to discuss as the district finalizes its policies to bring to the board and that he would be more comfortable giving schools the option of declining security rather than allowing them to strip officers of their weapons that runs counter to district policies.
"I think that would be a greater possibility than altering what the standard operating procedure would be," Pollio said.
While he proposed a "softer" approach toward arming school safety officers by giving principals input on the matter, Craig said he the idea of officers carrying their weapons in shoulder holsters was a better prospect than if they toted guns at their hips, visible for students and staff.
"What I'm really happy to hear is that we're not going to have somebody marching through the hallways with a pistol on their hip appearing as a policing presence," said Craig, who represents District 3. "It's there as a last resort type of way, and it's not a meaningful part of their presence."
Board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, said she felt that the debate on whether officers should be armed or not has slowed the process of launching an internal school security team.
JCPS administrators initially hoped to have the first wave of school security officers hired, trained and working in schools by February, but it’s unclear exactly when the first officers will be hired.
Duncan, who has been a vocal advocate of arming school security officers at JCPS, reiterated her view during the work session.
"If we decide that these individuals are not going to be armed, then that totally changes my mindset here because, to me, we're just adding more targets," she said.
Pollio said the district hoped to “move as quickly as we can” to get an internal security team in place, but he noted that it’s “critical for me that we get this right.”
"We have one chance at this to do it right, and I want to make sure it's right," he said.
Policies will need to move through the district’s policy committee before they’re presented to the full school board, Pollio said.
District officials have proposed hiring 19 total officers to work under an executive administrator of school safety, according to a draft personnel chart presented Tuesday.
In a split vote before the 2019-20 school year, the board did not approve contracts for 11 school resource officers through various law enforcement agencies after Metro Council approved a budget that pulled 17 LMPD officers from JCPS schools.
The first phase of the district’s proposed rollout of school safety officers calls for them to be assigned to high schools that were assigned SROs in the past. The second phase would put the officers in middle schools that previously had SROs, and the third would provide coverage for all other schools in the district.
They estimate that the district will spend $1.2 million through the rest of the school year – $500,000 for staff, $500,000 for vehicles, $80,000 for equipment, $70,000 for training materials, $60,000 for uniforms and $15,000 for insurance.
The officers would make approximately $45,000 or $50,000 per year under the proposed salary parameters and report to an executive administrator of school safety, who would report to the district's chief operations officer.
More than 2,500 teachers and administrators at middle and high schools who responded to a district survey overwhelmingly said they wanted school officers to be armed (82%) and wear an identifiable uniform (94%), according to results included in board materials for Tuesday’s work session. Ninety percent said they wanted an officer in their building.
The officers will need 100 hours of training each year, 40 of which are required under a new school safety law passed this year. Sixty additional hours of training will be mandated by JCPS in areas like de-escalation, trauma-informed care, implicit bias and working with special needs students, according to a presentation at Tuesday’s work session.
Part of that training, Virola said, would reinforce that officers would need to develop positive relationships with students.
That point was emphasized by Pollio, who said officers should be there to keep schools safe rather than being a disciplinary tool for teachers and administrators.
That aspect, Pollio said, was one of the challenges of contracting with police agencies for school resource officers.
"I think that comes in the hiring process, that we are very clear about the type of school safety officer we are looking to hire, what type of disposition, what type of experience, that they are going to be educators," he said, adding that training and oversight will also be integral.
Not everyone supports arming officers in schools or having former officers hired into the roles.
Chris Harmer, chairman of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, said the district should look to hire counselors, social workers, psychologists and retired teachers as school safety officers.
If they're ultimately required to carry weapons by state law, then they can receive training on that aspect of the job, he said.
"The first thing that we heard talked about tonight was the need to build relationships to be able to support kids, to be able to shape not control behaviors of kids," Harmer said.
"We really think fundamentally we need people who are trained in safe-crisis management," he added.
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