School safety

Five things to know about school resource officers in Tennessee

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Gov. Bill Haslam’s task force on school safety has identified expanded coverage by trained school safety staff — known as school resource officers, or SROs — as an immediate priority for Tennessee.

In response, the Republican governor, who is against a legislative proposal to arm some teachers with handguns, has set aside extra money in his proposed budget for state grants to help vulnerable districts pay for SROs and other security needs.

As Tennessee reviews the safety of its 1,700-plus public schools after this year’s fatal shooting rampage at a Florida high school, here are five things to know about its SRO program:

1. SROs have been around in Tennessee since 1993.

Rutherford County was the first to hire them, when then-Sheriff Truman Jones assigned five officers to keep schools secure and serve as safety resources to students and educators. That was five years before the Columbine massacre, where two students shot and killed 13 people at a Colorado high school and put mass school shootings on the national consciousness. “The [national] trend before then was to put officers in schools to build relationships with students and help with kids who were having problems,” said Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association. “We knew school shootings were a probability, though. The research was out there.”

2. Tennessee’s program has grown to 991 SROs, covering more than half of the state’s school buildings.

Most schools without an SRO are elementary schools. “If you’re going to have issues, it’s typically been in high schools,” said Justin Grogan, who patrols Moore County High School and heads the Tennessee School Resource Officer Association. Sixteen of the state’s more than 140 school districts have no SROs. Some metropolitan schools are staffed with security officers, which Grogan said do not have to be sworn law enforcement officers, although they can be.

3. How they are funded is a hodgepodge.

SROs do not fall under Tennessee’s education funding formula. Some are paid for by their local school districts, while others are funded by individual counties via the sheriff’s budget. “It’s really all over the map,” said Ashe. Because law enforcement pay varies widely across the state, there’s no accurate figure on how much it would cost for every Tennessee school to have one, according to Ashe.

4. SROs are sworn law enforcement officers.

They must have at least two years of experience in law enforcement, which means that they’ve graduated from one of Tennessee’s police academies with more than 400 hours of training. In addition, they must complete 40 hours of training to obtain their SRO certification, and another 16 hours annually to keep it. Much of the annual training is conducted by the state SRO association at its annual conference in June. SROs also must undergo annual training in firearms.

5. They answer to their sheriff or police chief, not their principal or superintendent.

Like any law enforcement officer, SROs carry a gun and a badge and have the authority to make arrests. They also must file a report on any crime or arrest with their local law enforcement department, which then sends the information to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. “There are a lot of bad situations that SROs have stopped that you never hear about,” said Ashe. “Eighty-five percent of these incidents is somebody coming in from the outside — maybe a parent, maybe a former student. We’re intervening every day. You just don’t read about it in the newspapers.”

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.