Thursday was the first day back to school from Christmas Break for students around the region. In Unicoi County, Thursday also marked the first day of school for several school resource officers who will be patrolling the hallways of the county’s schools to ensure the safety of students and educators.
Full-time, Police Officer Standards and Training-certified officers have been placed in all Unicoi County schools, where they will remain from now through at least the end of this school year. Police patrols around the county’s schools will also be beefed up.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said the move to place these officers in the schools was done in response to last month’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Hensley said he and other county officials agreed that quick action needed to be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring here.
“I’d rather be proactive than reactive,” Hensley said. “It could happen here just as well as it happened up there, and if it happened here, as small as we are, it would devastate this community, this county.
“It’s my job as sheriff to do whatever it takes to make all citizens of this county safe. If I see there is a potential danger, I have to address it. In this situation, I felt it was needed to be done to protect not only our children, but our teachers.”
Hensley said the Erwin Police Department is putting officers at Unicoi County Intermediate School and Unicoi County Middle School. Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown will provide the funding through the school system’s budget for the officer placed at Rock Creek Elementary School, Hensley said. The Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department already had an officer in place at Unicoi County High School and another has been placed at Temple Hill Elementary School. The town of Unicoi is providing funding for the officer who has been placed at Unicoi Elementary School from funds annually budgeted for the sheriff’s department.
Hensley said a specific officer has been assigned to each school, and the primary responsibility of the officers will be to remain in the schools.
“These officers that we’re putting into the schools, they’re not going to be answering any calls,” Hensley said. “That is their duty to stay in the schools, protect the teachers, protect the students. They’re going to be on-campus, they’re not going to leave campus.”
Deputy Josh Bailey, who has prior school resource officer experience in Unicoi County, has been stationed at Unicoi Elementary School. He said the school’s students seemed happy to see him upon their Thursday return to classes. Bailey also agreed with Hensley that protecting “those who can’t protect themselves” is a top priority.
“I love working with the kids,” Bailey said. “They are the top priority for us. If we didn’t like working with the kids or love the kids, we wouldn’t be here.”
Unicoi Elementary School Principal Michael Riddell said he and other school officials are pleased by the quick reaction to enhance safety at Unicoi County Schools.
“I think it’s an excellent idea,” Riddell said. “I’ve thought that it’s something we’ve needed for quite a while, especially on our end of the county because we don’t have the city police or dispatch real close. It gives us a presence here all the time on campus where we know we won’t have to wait if something were to happen or we did have an emergency.”
Hensley said officers have been pulled from the road to fill the positions in the schools, but he offered assurance that the county will remain covered from a law enforcement standpoint. He said the biggest issue surrounding the school officers is continued funding for the program. Hensley said the program will be evaluated by officials at the end of the school year, and he is hopeful that state or federal funding for school safety will become available in the future.
Hensley also expressed confidence that all of the officers in the schools could diffuse a dangerous situation, should one arise, before it escalates. While Hensley said placing officers in the schools is “something that I wish I didn’t have to do,” he said he is confident that it is the best move to enhance school security.
“We have to use every resource that we have available today to make sure that our children and our teachers are protected, and I feel we have accomplished that,” he said.