On Dec. 1, 1997, Michael Carneal walked into Heath High School in Paducah with a rifle and handgun hidden in his backpack.
He shot and killed three of his classmates and injured five more.
The United States has since grappled with school shootings year in and year out, and the debate over how to respond has only intensified as the incidents become more frequent and deadlier.
In 2012, the deadliest shooting at an elementary school occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where 20 students and six staff members were gunned down.
Ten years later, 19 students and two adults were shot and killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Lawmakers at various levels of government grapple with how to respond. In Kentucky, the legislature took action through the School Safety and Resiliency Act, which passed in 2019 and requires a school resource officer, or SRO, in all Kentucky schools.
But the bill didn’t have a funding mechanism, and now schools are dealing with a requirement to have an SRO on campus by August without a clear path to pay for it.
This year, Rep. Kevin Bratcher (R-Louisville) introduced House Bill 63, an extension of the SSRA that mandates schools to have an SRO in place when students head back to school.
But, again, the bill doesn’t include a way to fund the officers. In some cases, cities and school districts share the cost but there is no framework spelled out in the law.
Will SROs protect schools?
“An SRO is not going to stop everybody and everything,” Rep. Bratcher said. “It’s just there as a preventative measure to hopefully be able to stop a situation like that. It’s certainly better than nothing.”
The officers serve as a valuable resource because it’s community policing at its best, said Randy Poe, the executive director for the Northern Kentucky Education Council and former superintendent of Boone County Schools, Northern Kentucky’s largest district, and the third-largest in the state. These officers get to know the students and form relationships. This also helps the community as SROs ideally have a thumb on the community’s pulse.
Either way, come the fall, Northern Kentucky schools are expected have SROs, and the schools won’t just be dealing with the potential for a shooter. They’ll also be dealing with the same budget issues they’ve always faced – but now with an added cost.
How are NKY schools coping with the new mandate?
Boone County Schools have had SROs in middle and high schools since President Bill Clinton was in office (1993-2001), Poe said.
“With Sandy Hook, Sheriff (Michael) Helmig and myself, back at that time, we implemented it in the elementary school,” Poe said. “They were being covered on a rotation.”
SROs have been in place in a majority of schools in Northern Kentucky, according to Poe.
“Having one in every particular school, as opposed to a rotation or a person on a particular campus that has two or three buildings located, you know, the law is having some unintended consequences,” Poe said.
Having an SRO in every building by August of this year is forcing schools to hire the officers, train them, and ensure they’re ready by then and it could cause budget issues.
HB63 put a firm deadline in place for SROs to be placed in schools, and schools that don’t comply, or don’t have the financial means to comply, can reach out to the Kentucky State School Security Marshal Ben Wilcox, Bratcher said.
In Taylor Mill, Woodland Middle School and Scott High School, which are operated by the Kenton County School District, share the cost of two SROs with the city, which provides officers from the Taylor Mill Police Department. Taylor Mill Elementary is located in the City of Covington and has an SRO from the Kenton County Police Department.
The city and the school district split the roughly $119,000 cost per officer at Woodland Middle School and Scott High School. Taylor Mill’s two SROs are Officer James Poynter, assigned to Scott, and Officer Charles Phillips, assigned to Woodland.
Taylor Mill has provided half of the cost of the SROs since 2018, but the cost of the officer — payroll, benefits, uniform, and training from both state and federal agencies – has been adding up, and recently the city asked the school to cover 74 percent of the cost, which would increase the schools’ contribution from $60,000 to $89,250.
“It was an unfunded mandate,” Poe said. “I think the biggest problem with anybody getting SROs, or having SROs, in every particular building in Northern Kentucky, would be due to the budgetary considerations if they don’t have one by August.”
Senate Pro Tem David Givens (R-Greensburg) said that during the Interim Committee Meetings this year (when lawmakers meet but aren’t in session so no bills are voted on), the legislature will hold talks about SROs and school safety. When the committee meetings, which are held outside of the regular legislative session and serve the purpose of fact-finding missions, kicked off in Northern Kentucky, Givens talked with LINK nky about SROs and how they work in Kentucky.
“So the way we addressed in legislation is a requirement that each campus have an SRO, but provided a caveat that if a district cannot afford it, they communicate to (the Kentucky Department of Education) why they can’t afford it,” Givens said. “And then we can provide a waiver if that community feels like it simply can’t afford it.”
But, Givens also mentioned that he’d be curious to look at some of these school districts that can’t afford it.
“I’d love to delve into some of these districts that don’t have the money,” Givens said, “in light of us providing the highest level of education funding in the history of Kentucky, with no strings attached.”
Givens mentioned that this level of funding came through SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky), which is the formula for student funding. The funding is based on a per-student value, which usually adds up to half of the school district’s funding. The other portion comes from local taxes, with a small portion coming from the federal level.
“I voted for an amendment that would have had the state cover the cost — about $71 million if we paid to have SROs at all 1,161 public schools — but that, unfortunately, was voted down,” said Rep. Rachel Roberts (D-Newport). “I believe we should pay for what we require in our schools, especially in a time of record revenues. I also believe strongly that we need more counselors on staff with mental health training to spot issues before they spiral out of control.”
SEEK funding increased in this year’s legislative budget to 4,100 in the first year and $4,200 in the second year. The enacted budget has $680 million less for SEEK than the governor’s budget. The budget also increased to cover 70 percent of transportation costs, full funding for kindergarten, and teacher raises inside the SEEK model.
“We, unfortunately, have been underfunded for a period of time with what’s in place at the state level. For example, our transportation costs have never been fully funded to the extent they should be,” said Boone County Superintendent Matthew Turner to LINK nky reporter Kaitlin Gebby. “Our SEEK funding has not been adjusted for inflation over a period of time. There are some other things that have been cut over the years.”
“You’ve got mandates from the state, and you have the funding that you have to do, but local funding and state funding has not kept up with inflationary costs,” Poe said.