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10News Investigates: Armed officers in Knox Co. Schools

12:33 AM, Feb 5, 2013   |    comments
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While a lawsuit over Knox County Schools' security equipment heats up, school leaders and local law enforcement have already been discussing security following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Here's a look at where security stands, and ways the police chief and the sheriff think it could be improved.

Keeping Knox County Schools safe - that's Officer Dennis Murphy's mission. He's one of 45 school security officers in Knox County Schools. Each is assigned to the district's middle and high schools, along with some elementary schools.

"Our school security officers are armed. They are well trained, and we do lots of joint training exercises with the Sheriff's Office and with KPD," Knox County Schools superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre said.

The Knoxville Police Department has 17 officers on its force focused on school safety. They're spread out among the seven middle and seven high schools in city limits. Each middle school has one officer, and some high schools have two. Others officers keep an eye on the elementary schools.

The Knox County Sheriff's Office shares in that mission.

"Public safety and the protection of our children are the two most important things that we do," Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones said.

KCSO has deputies dedicated to the seven middle schools and eight high schools outside city limits. Other deputies go between two or three elementary schools.

But the Sandy Hook shooting last December prompted a broader discussion about school security in Knox County.

"We can always learn more. We can always do better. We can always think about how we enhance those efforts and improve those efforts," Dr. McIntyre said.

"We're not talking about specific types of incidents. We're not talking about the Sandy Hook's. We're talking about everything that comes into play as far as the security of our children," Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said.

That conversation comes down to physical tools, like monitoring systems, and the number of officers in each school. Currently, each Knox County elementary school does not have a full-time officer. Sheriff Jones wants to change that.

"We're talking about maybe adding 20 officers," Sheriff Jones said. "With equipment and radios and cars and those types of things, you're talking about roughly $2.2 million."

Sheriff Jones plans to make this request for the upcoming fiscal year.

To put an officer in each city elementary school, KPD would have to add 25 to its force. Chief Rausch says they will have to find the right level.

"It's not as simple as people just looking, and saying, 'Well you should just put an officer there.' It's not that simple. You have to think of deeper things, among educational processes and how does it play into the overall safety to the school," Chief Rausch said.

According to Chief Rausch, adding 25 more officers would require an upfront cost of about $2.5 million.

"Obviously the safety of our schools, you can't put a value on the safety for children. But you've got to be practical in your approach," Chief Rausch said. "I think we could cover it in a different way. I think we could do it in as few as five officers."

Currently, KPD's 17 officers cost the department about $1.35 million each year. For the Sheriff's Department, the annual cost comes in at $1,675,495 for its 24 officers. And Knox County Schools pays $1,355,173 per year for 45 school security officers.

Dr. McIntyre says adding more officers, like Officer Dennis Murphy, is something he will consider. The question is at what level, where and at what cost.

"I think those are all questions that we'll need to have a broader conversation and dialogue about with our school board, with our community, and certainly with Sheriff Jones and Chief Rausch," Dr. McIntyre said.

However, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said he won't consider any new funding requests for school security at this time. He wants the pending lawsuit over security technology, and any fallout, to be resolved first.

Knox County Schools is also planning a Community Forum to discuss school safety and school security. The meeting is set for Tuesday, March at 6:00 p.m. at Amherst Elementary School (5101 Schaad Road).

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