TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - As the Indiana General Assembly considers a bill to broaden options for school corporations to partner with law enforcement and improve school security, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller today advocated for the use of school resource officers as one component of a larger strategy to keep students and teachers safe.
During a visit today to the Vigo County School Corporation in Terre Haute, Zoeller reiterated his support for a bill now moving through the Legislature, Senate Bill 1, that would provide state matching grants to help schools create or expand school resource officer positions. School resource officers or SROs are qualified law enforcement officers who have received special additional training in school safety. Schools already are required to have safety plans in place and some currently utilize SROs, but since the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy of December 14, many school boards and administrators are examining ways to further enhance safety in their buildings and classrooms.
"Last fall, prior to the Newtown tragedy, the Office of the Attorney General conducted a needs assessment study where Indiana educators and law enforcement made clear they would like to make more school resource officers available in their schools but funding is an obstacle. Though each community's security needs are different, clearly there is an unmet demand by parents and educators to implement improvements smartly and swiftly, and I applaud the willingness of legis- lators to prioritize school safety with local control by moving Senate Bill 1 forward," Zoeller said.
"Every Hoosier child deserves to learn in an environment that is safe and welcoming," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz added. "As a former teacher, I am proud to support this bill because it will responsibly make our schools safer while giving local officials control over how to best protect their students. The safety of our children should not be a Democratic or Republican issue, and I am proud to support this bipartisan legislation," Ritz said.
Senate Bill 1, recommended by the Attorney General and authored by State Senator Pete Miller, R-Avon, was amended and approved 10-0 by the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 14 and now is before the full Indiana Senate. If passed into law, SB 1 would do the following:
· Add a legal definition of "school resource officer" to state statute. To qualify under the definition, a school resource officer would have to be trained as an Indiana law enforcement officer and have 40 additional hours of certified SRO training. Such officers could be employed directly by schools or work for law enforcement agencies and be assigned to schools under an agreement. Schools could assign them duties such as to develop and implement a school safety plan, protect students against outside threats to physical safety, prevent unauthorized access to school property and secure schools against violence and natural disasters.
· Create a Secured School Fund from which schools could apply for two-year matching grants of up to $50,000 each, to use to 1) employ a school resource officer, 2) conduct a threat assessment of school buildings, or 3) purchase equipment and technology to restrict access to school property or expedite notification of first responders.
· Set up a five-member board that would review applications for grants from the Secured School Fund and award funding to qualifying proposals. State grant funding could be supplemented with federal grants.
Zoeller, who is the lawyer for state government and represents the criminal justice system generally, said he supports the grant-application approach taken by Senate Bill 1 because it is voluntary, emphasizes local decision-making and complements efforts that local school boards already have undertaken.
For example, Zoeller praised the Vigo County School Corporation, which currently has school safety resource officers and recently took proactive steps so that all schools in the district will be protected by law enforcement agencies as well. Vigo Schools partnered with the Vigo County Sheriff's Department to share costs of hiring 10 special deputies assigned to schools in the sheriff's jurisdiction. Vigo Schools also partnered with the Terre Haute Police Department to assign police officers to schools within city limits, funded in part through a seized assets fund.
"Allowing flexibility for innovative local approaches in rural and urban schools is crucial as this legislation moves forward, and we encourage school corporations and law enforcement agencies to build upon the strong working relationships they have cultivated and thereby provide additional peace of mind for parents, students and teachers," Zoeller said.
The Indiana General Assembly is considering Senate Bill 1 even as the White House recently announced a proposal for a federal grant program to fund 1,000 resource officers nationwide in the aftermath
of Newtown. Zoeller said the Attorney General's Office will closely monitor whatever federal grant program might emerge, and he will work closely with Superintendent Ritz, the Department of Education, the Legislature and other state agencies to make schools aware of any future federal funding opportunities that could complement state grants.
On Friday, Zoeller plans to participate in a South Bend training seminar on school crisis response for School Resource Officers from Indiana and other states that is organized by David Capp, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana.
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