By Ivey Schofield
As a parent, Jason Atkinson wants his daughter to go to school, learn basic skills and grow as a person – all in a safe environment. As superintendent of Bladen County Schools, he says having more school resource officers is a good way to ensure that happens.
Last year, the rural North Carolina school district had four school resource officers – two fewer than it had budgeted and eight fewer than Atkinson’s desired ratio of one per school.
A tragedy 1,500 miles away further cemented Atkinson’s push for more school resource officers, who are sworn members of law enforcement tasked with serving as positive role models for students and handling any criminal behavior. On May 24, two adults and 19 students were killed in an elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
More than 311,000 children across the United States have been affected by gun violence on K-12 campuses in the last two decades, according to a Washington Post analysis. At least 185 students and educators have been killed.
“It can happen here,” Atkinson said of his district, which serves about 4,000 students. “We have to be prepared.”
Bladen County commissioners say they are committed to putting a school resource officer in every school. But the question is how to pay for it: through a property tax hike or a quarter-cent jump in local sales tax.
Voters will decide through a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot whether to opt for the sales tax increase. But it’s a tough sell in Bladen, where voters have said no to sales tax increases at least five times in the past.
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Currently, Bladen County has a 2-cent local sales tax. With the suggested increase, the local tax on a $150 grocery bill would jump from $3 to $3.75.
The ballot doesn’t say what the extra money generated from the sales tax hike would be used for. County Manager Greg Martin said it’s difficult to educate the public on the referendum because the county legally can’t run a campaign explaining the intended use of the money.
“The word ‘tax’ is what scares people off,” said Commissioner Charles Peterson, who cast the lone vote in June against increasing the property tax rate. He hopes voters will approve the sales tax referendum, which he called “minimal.”
If voters are in favor of the sales tax measure, commissioners say the property tax rate will be 77.5 cents per $100 valuation – a rate they had landed on based on the latest property valuation. The owner of a property valued at $175,000 would pay about $1,357 in annual taxes.
If the sales tax measure fails, the property tax rate will be 78.5 cents per valuation to raise an additional $315,000 for school resource officers. The owner of the same property would pay about $17 more each year.
Both are below the rate of 82 cents that was in place before June, although it’s important to note many property values have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Peterson said he wanted the money for additional SROs to come from the school system’s budget.
Bladen commissioners allocated about $6.8 million to the school district this year. Typically, the schools fund SROs through grants and money from the state.
“It didn’t go the way I wanted, but it went OK,” Peterson said of commissioners’ willingness to raise the property tax rate.
“I wanted SROs, and we’re getting SROs,” he said. “The penny on the property tax isn’t going to make a whole lot of a difference.”
‘We take this stuff seriously’
Bladen County Sheriff James McVicker, a Republican who is seeking re-election this fall, said he has pushed county leaders for more officers in schools.
“I was on my knees begging,” he said. “There’s a need for school resource officers.”
McVicker recently held training exercises for 18 current and potential SROs. Some don’t yet have the minimum requirement of one year of experience in law enforcement. So they will work part time at schools with qualified officers for the next year.
“I pray to God every night when I go to bed that we don’t have an incident in Bladen, and I want to make absolutely sure that doesn’t happen,” McVicker said. “We have more law enforcement now throughout the day in school in Bladen County.”
Hakeem Brown, a Democrat running for the sheriff’s seat, said he also supports increasing funding for school resource officers. He was one.
Brown said his time as a school resource officer was the most rewarding of his career. He wore many hats, helping children deal with their emotions, teaching them to tie a tie, providing them with lunch money, changing tires in the parking lot, directing traffic and ensuring the doors were locked.
“It’s more than being there for their safety. It’s about being a mentor,” Brown said. “That’s why you put people in place who have a heart for this.”
About 45% of schools in the United States have a school resource officer in place at least once a week, and another 13% of schools host additional law enforcement officers, according to federal data from of the 2015-2016 school year. That’s an increase of 13% from the prior decade.
But some studies suggest the presence of school resource officers doesn’t always improve safety. Instead, some people say, it can lead to harsher penalties for minor infractions and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Bladen County officials disagree.
“Too often there is so much stigma about law enforcement,” Atkinson said. “Our experience is that our school resource offices have been really well received by our students.”
The school system, Atkinson says, is taking measures outside of law enforcement to promote safety and security. It has conducted lockdown drills, taught teachers the signs for behavior indicative of violence, installed metal detectors, put up additional cameras, upgraded exterior locks and added electronic locks.
“We take this stuff seriously,” Atkinson said.
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