News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

February 21, 2013

Vigo school safety steps draw Indiana attorney general’s praise

Zoeller cites efforts as model for rest of state

TERRE HAUTE — A prominent state official is praising Vigo County efforts — among schools, police and governments — to safeguard schools while he drives legislation to do more of the same.

A coalition of public officials joined Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller at the Vigo County School Corp. offices Wednesday afternoon. Many used the term “collaboration,” as they described joint programs  to heighten school safety. Zoeller came to Terre Haute to discuss Indiana Senate Bill 1, which would broaden options for schools looking to partner with law enforcement.

Vigo County, Zoeller said, is leading the way with the partnership joining schools with Terre Haute police and Vigo County sheriff’s officers.

Danny Tanoos, Vigo County School superintendent, said the proposed addition of 10 special county deputies in rural schools, on top of existing law enforcement in the schools, is the result of a community effort by multiple bodies and people.

“What you’re seeing here doesn’t happen in every community,” he said, with representatives from both city and county government behind him. More than 28 officers are currently working inside local schools, he said.

Zoeller agreed, adding he will use the Vigo County model as an example when speaking to other communities in coming weeks about the legislation,

“Generally, there is less of a school resource presence in Indiana,” he said later in a news conference, explaining other states utilized police in schools for some time.

Senate Bill 1 would provide state matching grants to help schools create or expand school resource officer positions. School resource officers are officers with expanded training in the field of school safety, he explained. Hoosier schools are already required to have safety plans in place, and many already use SROs, he said.

Since the Newtown, Conn., tragedy of Dec. 14, many school boards and administrators are examining ways to improve safety in their buildings and classrooms, Zoeller said.

The fact that the proposed state legislation has been titled “Senate Bill 1” is a good sign, he said, remarking there’s a strong history of bills passing when legislators assign them that kind of priority, nominal though it might seem.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, like others present, referenced the school shooting in Connecticut as an incident that has drawn attention to a serious issue. As a member of a “Trust Local” coalition of leaders across the state, he said he was glad to be part of Vigo County’s initiative, which makes it among the first Hoosier communities to take such action.

“We felt we should do something to protect the children now, and not wait to receive state funding,” he said, adding that the design and funding mechanisms of the program were created in a collaborative environment. “We try to be ahead of the curve and do what’s right, and I really think what we have is a great program to put in place.”

Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing credited local citizens with supporting the plan to ensure its implementation.

“It’s the parents who have kids in schools, and the grandparents who have grandkids in schools,” he said.

Tanoos said the corporation has also taken strides to address the issue of mental health, which often accompanies school violence.

Zoeller said the presence of trained police officers inside schools can often stave off issues such as bullying or mental health problems, which result in tragedy if left to fester.

Describing the officers as “an early-warning system,” he said they can help with a wide array of potential issues. Legislators and schools officials seem in agreements that such programs are a benefit, but devising ways to afford them remains a concern, he said.

“I’ll be honest, it’s a funding question,” Zoeller said, addressing concerns that the matching grants could dry up at some point and local schools left with the costs. “I’ll have a few years more to argue that this needs to be a permanent part of Indiana education.”

Meanwhile, the White House has recently announced a proposal for federal grants to fund 1,000 such officers nationwide, and Zoeller said his office will work with the Indiana Department of Education to solicit additional funding of that nature.

Zoeller plans to speak on Friday at a South Bend training seminar on school crisis response for school resource officers from Indiana and other states.

The Vigo County program will be among the examples used, he said, emphasizing that as a “strong, home-rule state,” Indiana wants communities to take the lead in school safety.

  “This shouldn’t be a top-down approach,” he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

 

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