With School Safety bill unlikely, funding for radio system, extra resource officers uncertain
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Apr 08, 2013 | 5488 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
School resource officer David Becker at Saks High School on Monday. (Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
School resource officer David Becker at Saks High School on Monday. (Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
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David Becker can’t be in two places at once, even if his job requires him to.

As one of seven school resource officers for the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Becker spends his day going back and forth between Weaver High and Elementary schools, checking on the safety and well-being of students and staff, and keeping an eye out to make sure things run smoothly.

And although the two schools are less than a mile apart, Becker said, it’s impossible to know where to be at the right time.

“I think for all of us our biggest fear is we’re going to be at the wrong school when something happens,” Becker said. “Even though we’re close by, every second counts.”

Last week, state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, effectively killed a bill in the current legislative session that would have let residents vote on raising property taxes in order to hire a full-time resource officer in every county school in both Calhoun and Talladega counties. The bill, known as “the School Safety Act,” was expected to raise $7 million annually. Part of the revenue would pay the salary of the resource officers, while another chunk would be used to maintain the 800 megahertz radio system linking various law enforcement and emergency responder agencies in the area.

“I think we’re all disappointed that Sen. Marsh didn’t allow the people a chance to vote,” said Talladega police Chief Alan Watson, the chairman of the Alabama Regional Communication System board of directors, which oversees the 800 MHz radio system. “We’re all very concerned now about where we’re going to go from here.”

The priority for officials, Watson said, is making sure the lines of communication through the counties remain open. In other words, funding for school resource officers, for now, is shelved.

“The main focus is on the radio system,” said Mike Fincher, a member of the system’s board of directors and the director of safety for Calhoun County School. “We want to ensure that remains open and available because there are so many organizations in Calhoun and Talladega counties that rely on that for public safety.”

But officers in schools are an important part of public safety too, Fincher said, and their impact is often hard to measure.

“It’s impossible for us to know how many violent acts are prevented just by their presence,” Fincher said. “That’s not something you can put a number on.”

Becker said his day-to-day activities are numerous, from simple traffic monitoring to interacting in a positive environment with students, but stopping a potentially violent situation before it escalates is probably the most important function of resource officers. He points to an example three years ago in which, he said, he stopped and arrested a student trying to assault a staff member.

“Fortunately in Weaver they have a police department, they could have been here pretty quickly,” Becker said of what might have happened without an officer available in the school. “But it becomes a problem further out in the county. The nearest deputy could be anywhere from the same street to a few miles away.”

Watson said it’s a problem the Talladega County Schools face. The 17 schools within that district share two resource officers.

“That’s stretching them pretty thin,” Watson said. “Especially when you get way out in the county where those schools are miles apart.”

Watson said judging from public reaction the board got while promoting the School Safety Act, he knows residents are eager to get officers in schools, and he thinks it’s only a matter of time before resource officers become a staple statewide.

But an officer in a school, just like an officer on the street, or a first responder at the scene of an accident, can only be effective with the proper channels open and available to talk with each other and the public.

“We have to communicate,” Watson said. “Without communication we can’t get to the people.”

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.

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