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January 6, 2013

Guarded response: Statehouse bill seeks to put more police in schools

Attorney General is backing the proposed legislation.

— Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is backing legislation that could put more police officers in schools.

The legislation, filed by Republican state Sen. Pete Miller of Avon, would set aside $10 million in state funding that could be leveraged by local school corporations to hire trained law enforcement officers to act as “school resource officers.”

At a press conference Thursday, Zoeller and Miller said they began working on the bill before the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and 6 school staff members dead.

That incident has escalated public concern about the safety of schools. “In light of the recent tragic events in Connecticut, we know school safety is a subject parents and the public are very concerned about,” Zoeller said.

Neither Miller nor Zoeller said the presence of a police officer in a school would prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in Indiana, though they suggested it could be a deterrent.

“It’s particularly important that these positions be expanded in light of the tragedy in Connecticut,” Zoeller said, adding that an argument could be made that not having a police presence in school makes that school a “softer” target for a gun attack.

Zoeller cited a needs assessment survey, conducted by his office last fall, that found that parents, teachers, school administrators and police supported the idea of putting more police officers in local schools, but worried about how to fund the extra expense.

Miller’s bill would set aside $10 million for the Indiana Safe School Fund and allow public schools to apply for matching grants to hire officers to work in schools. The amount of state dollars from the fund would be capped at $50,000 for each school corporation.

Miller acknowledged that the bill doesn’t provide enough money to put a police officer in every school in Indiana. But he described his bill as an initial step toward making schools safer.

“This proposal would be a good first step to meet an immediate need and expand resource officers into schools that don’t already have them, and still give the legislature and executive branch the opportunity to look at other more long-term comprehensive safety options,” Miller said.

Zoeller estimated that one-quarter to one-third of Indiana’s 1,000-plus schools currently have a police officer working as a “school resource officer.”

More than providing immediate security, those officers are also involved in devising school safety plans, enforcing school rules, and working with students and school staff to identify other problems, from bullying to illegal drug use.

Miller’s bill has already earned support from the incoming state Superintendent for Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz. The Democrat Ritz said in a statement that she believed the bill would help ensure safer schools.

It also has some support from the Indiana Association of Police Chiefs, an organization that is currently involved in setting training standards for police officers who work in the schools.

Mike Ward, the association’s executive director, said his members haven’t seen the final language of Miller’s bill, so are holding off endorsing it. But he said the concept of having the state help local schools and local police departments financially, so they can provide for safer schools, is a good one.

“Having a police officer (in school) can be a significant deterrent to violence and mayhem,” Ward said.

Few schools or local police departments have the extra resources to do that on their own, he said.

“If this bill helps offset the cost, that’s a good thing,” Ward said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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