Hoping to avoid the unspeakable tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary, Governor Jan Brewer this week promised money for the lagging School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which puts an armed police officer on campus to provide both protection and education.
“… we have a responsibility to make certain our children have a safe place to learn,” she said in her State of the State speech.
“Part of the solution is something that already has a track record of success: the School Resource Officer. My budget plan will expand state funding for these trained officers,” replacing money the Legislature cut in 2011.
Payson Police Chief Don Engler and Payson Unified School District Superintendent Ron Hitchcock agree this is the best way to protect school children.
“Currently I have one SRO officer funded through the Arizona Department of Education that splits his time between RCMS (Rim Country Middle School), JRE (Julia Randall Elementary) and PES (Payson Elementary School),” said Engler.
Engler said that over the last few years, the state has slashed funding for the Payson School District SRO program.
The district only has one officer, who spends most of his time at Rim Country Middle School.
“The grant process that funded SROs has indeed been drastically reduced,” said Hitchcock. “PUSD is not the only district to lose SROs due to that loss of revenue. I believe the restoration of that funding is what the governor will address. As recently as two years ago, PUSD had at least three SROs instead of one.”
Hitchcock said the governor will probably address the SRO funding issue on Friday during her discussion of the budget.
Meanwhile, Pinal County State Senator Rich Crandall (R-Mesa), Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) President Kevin Quinn have suggested a plan to use $36 million to fund 300 SROs, mental health assessments, school counseling services and pro-active methods to identify threats.
The plan would use extra Clean Elections funding, but would require a ballot initiative.
Currently the Arizona Department of Education pays for SROs with grants, said Engler.
“The Department of Education pays the total of (SRO Michael Hansen’s) regular salary,” said Engler, “95 percent of the SRO expenses are covered.”
Both Engler and Hitchcock said the SRO does much more than act as a hired gun.
“SROs are for emergency situations, as well as education,” said Engler. “He interacts with students and parents, operates as a counselor and teaches classes.”
Engler said students have come to trust Hansen. They have told him about fights in time for him to head them off. He sits down with students to go over the consequences of a life of crime.
Hansen also teaches classes on domestic and dating violence, the Bill of Rights, the function of the police in society, along with many other topics.
Hansen, as the SRO, also consults with the district on its emergency preparedness.
Hitchcock said that Hansen, Engler and the Payson Police Department have been most helpful in consulting on the districts responses to emergencies.
Around the state, Arizona officials have tossed chips of ideas onto the poker table to address the school safety issue.
Attorney General Tom Horne suggested arming teachers. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio favors arming and training roving posses of volunteers.
Neither Engler nor Hitchcock agrees with those suggestions.
“I am a fan of SROs, certainly much more than arming staff,” said Hitchcock.
“Anytime there is a police presence on campus, it’s a deterrent to any criminal or drug activity — and it often stops fights and assaults,” said Engler.