Many people in Marshall County are expressing frustration with the county judge-executive’s proposed plan to make significant school security changes. An online petition opposing the plan garnered more than 2,000 signatures in less than a week, and organizers have planned to stage a protest outside the county courthouse June 16.
Misti Drew, an organizer of ‘Standing Strong’ Rally for the Resource Officers, said, “We don’t know what to do as a community other than have our voices heard and try to support and encourage our three county commissioners to stand up for all of us.”
Nearly 600 people have indicated on social media their intent to participate in the rally. Organizers have secured a local business to make t-shirts and signs for the rally participants. Drew said the rally will feature guest speakers and afterward participants will walk around the county courthouse in Benton’s court square.
Drew started to cry as she recalled the Marshall County High School (MCHS) shooting on Jan. 23, 2018, which rocks the community to this day.
“I can’t believe we’re having to have this conversation to be honest with you. It’s like, who doesn’t remember that,” she said. “If we have well trained officers in our schools, that’s peace of mind that you can’t put a price tag on.”
Drew, former Marshall County Commissioner and Republican, has been openly critical of Neal, also a Republican, including his recent refusal to approve an application for a federal grant which would have provided partial funding so each school campus could have its own school resource officer (SRO).
“If [Judge-Executive] Kevin Neal would have signed that COPS grant that the school system and the sheriff’s office worked months to complete, we would have funding for a resource officer in every school.”
Marshall County Sheriff Eddie McGuire told WKMS there are currently eight SROs: three at MCHS (due to the large campus with approximately 1,200 students), one at each of the two middle schools, and the six elementary schools share the remaining three SROs.
Following a flurry of social media comments along with a petition, organization of the rally, and community members and the current SROs sharing personal testimonials, Marshall County Commissioners Monti Collins, Justin Lamb and Kevin Spraggs have all publicly stated they will not vote in favor of a budget or any measure which removes oversight of the SROs serving Marshall County’s schools from the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). Judge-Executive Kevin Neal did not respond to WKMS’ request for comment.
During the Marshall County Fiscal Court’s June 1 budget workshop, Neal proposed a measure which removes funds from the MCSO to instead create a community police department which would oversee the school resource officers (SROs). But Neal was adamant what he would rather see is the Marshall County Board of Education create their own SLEO (school law enforcement officer) program. He called the current set-up a “bureaucratic layer” and said he doesn’t believe the county/MCSO has the funds nor should have the responsibility of overseeing security at the schools. He noted a potential savings of $114,000 in the upcoming fiscal year by not having to pay those officers outside the school year.
*Editor’s note: the MCSO is partially subsidized by the county and the MCSO is fee-pooled by the county, meaning all of its funds, even those it collects itself, are directly overseen by the fiscal court.
Neal also said he understands Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett doesn’t want to operate as a ‘police chief’ overseeing officers directly employed by the school district, referencing a May 1 virtual meeting, but charged the Marshall County Board of Education to stop “hid[ing] behind” Lovett and take action as elected officials.
“The school should be hiring the resource officers, that's my professional and personal opinion. [The board members] can’t hide behind the superintendent. They have to make a decision. They’re elected officials,” he said.
Nearby McCracken County Schools oversees its own SLEO program with a certified officer serving as director of the program, who answers directly to Superintendent Steve Carter. Bruce Watson, law enforcement supervisor for the district, said he oversees nine other officers who help secure the district’s 13 schools; four of those officers serve at the McCracken County High School full time which contains approximately 2,000 students.
Three of the five Marshall County Board of Education seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 2020 election, and the deadline for filing was June 2.
The candidates for District 1 are Amy Waggoner and Hollie Freeman. Waggoner is a Marshall County native whose children attended MCHS and who retired from MCHS in Oct. 2017. Freeman moved to Marshall County when her husband was tapped by the Marshall County Fiscal Court as Marshall County E-911 director in May 2019. Freeman did not respond to inquiries made by WKMS regarding her interest in the office. Freeman is the Marshall County Senior Center Director through the Purchase Area Development District (PADD). The PADD’s personnel policies strictly prohibit its employees from running for an elected office. PADD Executive Director Jeremy Buchanan said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters but acknowledged the PADD is aware and working toward a resolution.
The candidates for District 2 are Ledonia Williamson and Tabitha Neal. Williamson has lived in Marshall County for more than 30 years and recently retired from the school district as its recovery coordinator, a position which was created following the Jan. 2018 MCHS shooting. Tabitha Neal, Judge-Executive Kevin Neal’s wife, did not respond to inquiries made by WKMS regarding her interest in the office.
The candidates for District 5 are Tiffany Carlson, Mary Beth Riggs and Doug Hall. Carlson is the incumbent in the seat who has served since 2016. She’s a Marshall County native and graduate of MCHS with one son who recently graduated and one who’s still attending the district. Riggs is also a Marshall County native and MCHS graduate who retired as a teacher from the district and has two grandchildren still in attendance. Hall has lived in Marshall County for more than 50 years, is a MCHS graduate, his children also graduated from the district and he worked in the district for a time as a substitute teacher. He’s the chair of the Marshall County UK Extension Board, president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau Western District (covering 11 counties) and the president of the Marshall County Kentucky Farm Bureau, an organization which contributed to Kevin Neal’s re-election campaign in 2018.
When asked about the upcoming rally in Benton’s court square Marshall County Schools Superintendent Trent Lovett told WKMS, “I feel confident that our county commissioners will make the correct decision and keep our resource officers with the sheriff’s department. Hopefully we can get this worked out and move on with educating our students and keeping them safe.”
Lovett said no matter what happens, the district will “work [their] tails off” to have SROs in place before the school year starts. But his preference, he said, is for the school district to continue working directly with the MCSO to provide SROs.