By MAUREEN HAYDEN
> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is backing legislation that could put more police officers in schools.
The legislation, filed by Republican State Sen. Pete Miller of Avon, would set aside $10 million in state funding that could be leveraged by local school corporations to hire trained law enforcement officers to act as “school resource officers.”
At a press conference Thursday, Zoeller and Miller said they began working on the bill before the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and 6 school staff members dead.
That incident has escalated public concern about the safety of schools. “In light of the recent tragic events in Connecticut, we know school safety is a subject parents and the public are very concerned about,” Zoeller said.
Neither Miller nor Zoeller said the presence of a police officer in a school would prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in Indiana, though they suggested it could be a deterrent.
“It’s particularly important that these positions be expanded in light of the tragedy in Connecticut,” Zoeller said, adding that an argument could be made that not having a police presence in school makes that school a “softer” target for a gun attack.
Zoeller cited a needs assessment survey, conducted by his office last fall, that found that parents, teachers, school administrators and police supported the idea of putting more police officers in local schools, but worried about how to fund the extra expense.
Miller’s bill would set aside $10 million for the Indiana Safe School Fund and allow public schools to apply for matching grants to hire officers to work in schools. The amount of state dollars from the fund would be capped at $50,000 for each school corporation.
Miller acknowledged that the bill doesn’t provide enough money to put a police officer in every school in Indiana.
But he described his bill as an initial step toward making schools safer. “This proposal would be a good first step to meet an immediate need and expand resource officers into schools that don’t already have them, and still give the legislature and executive branch the opportunity to look at other more long-term comprehensive safety options,” Miller said.
Zoeller estimated that one-quarter to one-third of Indiana’s 1,000-plus schools currently have a police officer working as a “school resource officer.”
More than providing immediate security, those officers are also involved in devising school safety plans, enforcing school rules, and working with students and school staff to identify other problems, from bullying to illegal drug use.
Miller’s bill has already earned support from the incoming state Superintendent for Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz. The Democrat Ritz said in a statement that she believed the bill would help ensure safer schools.
It also has some support from the Indiana Association of Police Chiefs, an organization that is currently involved in setting training standards for police officers who work in the schools.
Mike Ward, the association’s executive director, said his members haven’t seen the final language of Miller’s bill, so are holding off endorsing it. But he said the concept of having the state help local schools and local police departments financially, so they can provide for safer schools, is a good one.
“Having a police officer (in school) can be a significant deterrent to violence and mayhem,” Ward said.
Few schools or local police departments have the extra resources to do that on their own, he said.
“If this bill helps offset the cost, that’s a good thing,” Ward said.
Though the legislation hasn’t pushed its way through to law yet, school district officials in Southern Indiana have already shown some interest in taking advantage of grant funding for school resource officers.
In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., districts in Clark and Floyd counties have responded by addressing specific security concerns in their own schools.
Andrew Melin, superintendent of Greater Clark County Schools, said there are a few resource officers in his district — two at Jeffersonville High School, two at Charlestown High School and one at New Washington High School — but he’s open to the idea of bringing more on board.
“I think it’s something we have to consider,” Melin said. “I think student safety has to be our top priority. I know that our financial circumstances are such that we need to be very cautious, but I think that you have to first and foremost consider student safety and we have to look at the possibilities.”
He said if more grant funding became available they could pay for the full cost of another officer elsewhere in the district, perhaps at Charlestown.
John Reed, assistant superintendent for West Clark Community Schools, said in the midst of evaluating their policies and facilities, additional grant funding could help them out.
“Whatever we utilize as afar as funding from the state or anything we pursue, we want to make sure there are good, sound reasons for doing it and that it will achieve what our goals for safety actually are,” Reed said.
He said there aren’t any hard set plans to hire additional officers right now, but they’re working to find other ways to make their schools more secure.
“We hired an agency to come in and study our schools and give us some suggestions as far as safety is concerned,” Reed said. “It’s something we’re taking very seriously and it’s ongoing, so we don’t have any conclusions to give.”
In Clarksville Community Schools, a school resource officer was just approved by the district’s board of trustees. The officer from Clarksville Police will work in all three of the corporation’s schools.
Kim Knott, superintendent, said if the grant funding bill passed, they’ll have to look at the details of the law before they decide how or if to pursue funding.
“Clearly, if the bill passes, we would look at any grant funding,” Knott said. “I would say that for us to move forward on our plans to bring a resource officer on board in Clarksville Schools will not be predicated on that bill passing and those grant dollars becoming available.”
She said depending on how the grant is written, the timeframe the funding is available and whether the funds are recurring will all weigh in to how the district would use the funding if the law was passed.
Bill Briscoe, assistant superintendent for the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp., said since the legislation is still pending, it’s too early for NA-FC officials to comment on whether they’d use the funding. But he said officials continue to meet about ways to improve safety in its schools.
Staff Writer Jerod Clapp contributed to this story