A western Kentucky county where a deadly 2018 high school shooting claimed the lives of two students is continuing to debate the funding of school resource officers (SROs).
Residents of Marshall County rallied on the courthouse lawn in support of the current funding model for SROs, which splits the cost between the sheriff’s department and the school district. The school pays for the deputies during the school year, with the county footing the bill during school breaks.
Judge/Executive Kevin Neal is seeking to change the way SROs are organized and funded. He said the current setup is a “bureaucratic layer” that shouldn’t be the responsibility of the fiscal court. Former Marshall County Commissioner and 911 Director Misti Drew organized Tuesday’s rally in response, drawing hundreds of supporters to Benton’s court square. Drew addressed the crowd, saying school resource officers are essential for physical safety but also to provide students with positive law enforcement interactions.
“Beyond offering us some sense of peace of mind in this crazy world that we live in, and beyond offering obvious physical protections and the ability to serve as a deterrent for someone that may want to cause our students or school members harm, these officers are role models,” Drew said.
Eight SROs protect Marshall County’s schools, with three at Marshall County High School, one at each middle school and the remaining three split between the district’s six elementary schools.
Marshall County Sheriff Eddie McGuire attended the rally and spoke in support of the current SRO funding model. He said cost doesn’t matter when it comes to the safety of the county’s children.
“I don’t care what it costs,” McGuire said. “I don’t care what we have to give up as a sheriff’s office. You can throw everything else away but until that is funded appropriately with the people that we have in place, then I’m not gonna rest.”
In addition to public officials, community members addressed the rally as well. Brian Cope, the father of MCHS shooting victim Preston Cope, said he is disappointed by the squabbles over school safety funding in county government.
“I don’t care about the political side of it,” Cope said. “It’s about our children.”
Cope said his family has been lobbying legislators and local officials to allow for the creation of a fund to benefit school safety personnel and resources in Marshall County. He said his family will personally donate $5,000 once a foundation has been established.
“We want one [school resource officer] in every school, and we’re gonna get that,” Cope said.
After the rally, the fiscal court convened in regular session before holding a budget workshop to discuss the county’s funding plan for the upcoming fiscal year. A second reading of the county budget is slated for June 22, but the county could be forced to repeat the first reading if “significant changes” are made to the budget. That’s according to guidelines from the state Department for Local Government, which works closely with counties throughout the budgeting process. Fiscal courts are statutorily obligated to wait no fewer than seven days between a first and second reading, potentially tightening the timeline to approve the budget by July 1.
“If there are significant changes, then we are back to square one,” explained Judge/Executive Neal.
Emotions ran high as SRO funding was considered at the court’s budget workshop. WKMS previously reported Neal encouraged the school board to assume full responsibility for school security by hiring and managing their own officers. He said the fiscal court could save $114,000 by not having to pay SROs to serve as patrol deputies during school breaks.
Neal said Tuesday some community members have reached out to him who are “misinformed” about his plan to restructure the school resource program. He said a common misconception is that he is working to defund school safety initiatives. Rather, he said he supports modifying how SROs are organized and funded to relieve budgetary pressure on the county.
All three county commissioners have publicly stated they won’t support a budget that removes the SROs from the sheriff’s department. Second District Commissioner Kevin Spraggs insisted at previous court meetings school safety is a top priority, and he held firm in front of a full courtroom at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I will not waver from that,” Spraggs said.”I want the SROs left under the authority of the sheriff’s department. I want the line moved back to the sheriff’s department. This community deserves no less than the finest officers we have to offer for our schools and I’ll settle for no less. If it means voting no on a budget because of that one thing, then I’ll absolutely vote no.”
Drew repeatedly spoke in open court to challenge Neal’s plan. She brought up the COPS grant, an application prepared by sheriff’s office and school board officials that would have funded three new school resource officers. The additional officers would have put the Marshall County school district in full compliance with Kentucky’s School Safety and Resiliency Act, commonly known as Senate Bill 1, which mandates a school resource officer in every school in the commonwealth where funding allows. After originally citing budget constraints, Neal prevented the sheriff’s department from applying for the funds. He later said McGuire mistakenly pre-arranged the employment of a deputy, which he said was prohibited by the grant. Drew asked each commissioner during the meeting if they were aware of the COPS grant proposal, and each replied they did not learn of the application and subsequent refusal by Neal until after the fact.
Ahead of the budget meeting, Neal released a statement on his campaign Facebook page laying out in detail his plan for school safety in the county. He said “some individuals” are working to spread misinformation alleging he wishes to defund or eliminate the SRO program.
“The assumption seemed to be that I did not have a plan to improve security in our schools nor did I care,” Neal said in the release. “I have never stated that I had any intention or desire to defund our school resource officers. It is simply not true.”
Changes to the county budget discussed at the meeting will be subject to a vote by commissioners at a special meeting June 22. The new fiscal year begins July 1.