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September 25, 2013

Vigo school, law enforcement officials testify to Statehouse committee

INDIANAPOLIS — Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing doesn’t plan to teach arithmetic in school any time soon.

And he’d prefer it if educators not trained as police officers would not carry guns in school.

“I didn’t go to school to teach,” Ewing told an Indiana Senate school safety interim study committee at the Statehouse on Tuesday. “I believe teachers and principals don’t need to be worried about doing my job.”

Ewing was among Vigo County officials who told the study committee how his county’s law enforcement, government and school officials came together to put school protection officers in each school after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Connecticut last December.

Vigo County School Corp. Superintendent Danny Tanoos, who also attended the committee meeting, said school protection officers in the district’s schools are all former police officers, many retired, who now have full-time jobs with the school corporation to be the first line of defense in case of a violent attack.

And these officers are not expected to look for students sneaking a smoke in the restroom or to bust students who are cutting class.

While the school district and city and county governments split the costs of the program, the sheriff’s department and Terre Haute Police Department are responsible for the law enforcement duties of each officer. The county and the city supply marked police cars that are parked outside each school as a message to the public that an armed officer is inside to protect students and staff.

“We looked at our best options,” Terre Haute Police Chief John Plasse told the study committee, “and we realized we couldn’t just pick a school to protect, it had to be all schools. And the officers need to be armed and trained law enforcement officers.”

That’s partly because school shootings happen in a matter of minutes, he said.

“If they [shooters] know there’s someone there who can shoot back, they won’t go there,” Plasse said, noting that of dozens of schools that have experienced shootings since April 1999, none had an armed police officer in the building when the shooting began.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, Vigo County Council President Bill Thomas and County Councilman Tim Curley also showed their support for the school protection officer program.

“With an officer in every school, it really has put a good level of comfort in the schools and for the parents,” Bennett said of the community response. “We went from no security in the elementaries to an officer in each school. The money is a tough thing, but I know we really believe this is a great model to follow, and I hope you all will find the funding for other communities to do this.”

Bennett said that while implementing the plan initially put a strain on the city budget, it has now been built into future city budgets. He also noted that the program can be important from an economic development standpoint, as the community tries to attract new industry, and the safe schools are promoted as a community selling point.

Councilmen Thomas and Curley both said that as soon as Ewing brought together community leaders to discuss the school protection officer program last spring, they considered it as a community effort that needed to be put in place.

“It doesn’t matter about whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” said Curley, who is a retired police officer. “It’s a matter of doing what’s right for our children.”

Some security changes went into effect in Vigo County schools soon after the Sandy Hook massacre, Tanoos said.

All school buildings are now locked. More security cameras were installed. School staff went through active-shooter training with police officers. A school protection officer was placed at the front door of each building. All visitors are escorted through the halls.

“We tightened things up in a pleasant way, a caring way,” Tanoos said.

He both asked legislators to consider funding security upgrades for schools throughout Indiana and put in a plug for Vigo County’s receiving a $50,000 Safe Schools Grant approved by the legislature, even though the school district was proactive in establishing its own program before the state mandate and has used funds in its cash balance to pay for officer salaries.

In response to legislators’ questions, Tanoos noted that no teachers or staff are allowed to carry weapons in the schools.

And neither Chief Plasse nor Sheriff Ewing said they would support arming teachers.

State Rep. Alan Morrison and State Sen. Tim Skinner — both of Terre Haute, the former a Republican, the latter a Democrat — agreed with that position.

“One of the things this committee is struggling with is putting a gun on a principal or a teacher. Does that make the school safer?” asked Skinner, a retired teacher.

“The committee needs affirmation that it’s not a good idea to arm teachers or staff. Unfortunately, there are communities around the state where people think it is a good idea to let teachers be armed.”

Morrison said the Vigo County effort is a good example of how a community responded to the security question on its own, adding that the legislature hopes other communities are not afraid to take that local approach.

“There is such a diversity of communities, though,” Morrison said. “What Vigo County does won’t work everywhere, but we need to find out what can work and help communities make their schools safe for students and staff.”

Morrison said the committee is tasked with addressing concerns with current school safety legislation so that changes in language or funding can be made in the upcoming legislative session.

“We’re likely to get back together to go over what we’ve learned, and to come up with solutions,” he said. “That’s why hearing from these guys who are already protecting their schools is so great.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

 

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