With assistance from a state grant and local dollars, Sampson County officials are making strides to improve safety in the school district, funding three additional school resource officers (SROs) to join four already on the job.
This week, the Sampson County Board of Commissioners approved spending $187,615, the difference needed to outfit three new deputies, to include salaries, benefits and a vehicle apiece. Sampson County Schools (SCS) already had a $100,000 grant, which they matched with $50,000 from the school system.
SCS Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy, in a letter to the Board of Commissioners at the end of August, spoke to the need for the officers and the grant funds that would allow the school system to take that step. He addressed the board in person last month.
At that time, commissioners tabled the matter but said the request for the difference needed to reach $337,615 would likely get the county’s backing. It did earlier this week, by a 4-0 vote (Chairman Clark Wooten was absent).
“As you are aware, school safety has been a topic of concern on the minds of citizens across our nation in light of mass shootings in recent years,” Bracy stated in his initial memo to the board.
He noted that SCS, along with other districts, had implemented a number of safety measures, to include staff training, improving lockdown procedures, restricting access to facilities and installing cameras.
One area where the system fell behind neighboring districts, however, was the number of SROs.
“Sampson County Schools has the highest number of unprotected schools in our region,” Bracy stated simply. He relayed figures to commissioners last month, saying that, while many surrounding districts had more schools, they also had a higher percentage of SROs to cover those facilities.
In North Carolina, SROs are assigned to provide coverage to a school or a set of buildings. The three main roles are to perform law enforcement duties, law-related counseling services and education regarding the law.
In early 2018, Bracy and other school officials began talks toward increasing the numbers of SROs in buildings. Board members shared their concerns following the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, which took the lives of 17 people, mostly students.
In order to meet the SRO need, Sampson’s district was one of many that applied for funding through the new School Safety Grants Program, implemented by the N.C. General Assembly and State Superintendent Mark Johnson. Funds are used to train and employ officers.
Sampson was awarded the $100,000 grant in August, to be paired with $50,000 in matching school system funds to cover the salaries of three additional SROs. They will be placed at the middle school level, and boost SCS’s total to seven SROs, Bracy noted.
The requested — and now approved — $187,615 to cover the additional start-up costs to implement the grant won’t be a standing annual expense, the SCS superintendent said.
“This amount will be substantially lower in subsequent years as vehicles and equipment will already be purchased and will not need replacement for many years to come,” Bracy stated.
This week, County manager Ed Causey further explained how the budgeting would work.
“What we’re proposing to do is to ask you to approve the request with the idea that the officers are initially going to be funded from lapsed salaries — unfunded positions — which means we won’t add to the employee base at this time,” said Causey. “We will come back in February (planning session) and have an in-depth conversation and make final adjustments about budgeting.”
Causey said he did not see the Sheriff’s Office budget being adversely affected.
Bracy did note that the SROs would only be needed by the school system for 180 days a year and would spend the remainder of the year under the direction of the sheriff. He touted the grant funds and said the county’s assistance would ensure proper measures are taken to make students, teachers and faculty, along with parents and other visitors, safer.
“We believe that this grant is an excellent opportunity to help protect our students and improve the safety of all citizens of Sampson County for minimal cost,” said Bracy.
Managing Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.