Fayetteville council moves forward with plan to hire more school resource officers

Fayetteville High School (Flyer file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE — The City Council is moving forward with a plan to add more police officers to work in the city’s public schools.

Council members on Tuesday voted 7-1 to apply for a grant, that if awarded, will support the hiring of two new school resource officers who will begin work in the 2024-25 school year. Councilmember Sarah Moore cast the sole vote against.

The move comes after a unanimous council decision in August 2022 to hire two new officers each year until every school in the district has a full-time officer on duty.

The city shares the cost of paying for school resource officers with the district, based proportionately on how many days per year the officers are working inside the schools. The city currently has seven of nine SRO positions filled.

Fayetteville Police Chief Mike Reynolds said while the estimated cost for the two officers over four years is $746,100, the city’s cost will only be $156,390 after factoring in the $250,000 grant and the district’s share of $339,710. He said the officers are expected to be on duty with the district for 178 days each year. The remaining 82 days of the officers’ work time would be dedicated solely to the city.

Mass killings on a record pace

Reynolds said with a major increase in mass shootings across the country, he’s received a lot of calls from parents requesting the department add more resource officers to the city’s schools.

The U.S. is on a record pace for mass shootings so far this year. The mass killings have occurred in a variety of places, including a Nashville school, a Kentucky bank, and a Southern California dance hall. Last week’s carnage in Texas left five more people dead, and four others were found shot to death in an RV in California over the weekend.

As of Tuesday, the shootings have taken 97 lives in 19 mass killings over a 122-day period, exceeding the record set in 2009 when 93 people were killed in 17 incidents by the end of April.

Reynolds said parents are familiar with the council’s intent to add two new officers each year, but lately they’ve been asking how the city can expedite the process.

“Unfortunately, I just don’t have the capacity to do that at this time,” he said.

Reynold said the council’s decision last August is helpful in planning for the future, especially when it comes to seeking out grants to help pay officer salaries, but without further funding, the department must stay the course in adding two officers each year.

Pulled from consent

The proposal to apply for the grant was originally on the City Council’s consent agenda, meaning it wasn’t expected to be debated, but Moore requested it be removed so a discussion could take place.

“There’s been a lot of conversation in the community, especially since 2020 in regard to these programs,” said Moore. “So because there’s a lot of community interest and a matching investment the city would be making, I would like to ask that this be pulled over to new business so the community has an opportunity to make comment before approval.”

Moore was elected to the council in November, and was therefor not one of the eight who voted in favor of adding new officers.

Councilmember Scott Berna, who is also new to the council this year, told Moore she’s well within her rights to request a discussion, but he likely won’t be swayed in his support.

“This council has made itself pretty clear that they want to support this, and now the chief has gone out and found grants to help pay for it,” said Berna. “If (a discussion) is what you want, I’ll sit here and listen to it, but I’m not sure what the debate is.”

Tuesday’s discussion

Moore on Tuesday said she’s a mother who sends her children to school and wants to make sure they’re safe, but as a policymaker, she wants to look at all potential answers to a public health crisis and make sure the focus isn’t strictly relying on having police officers inside schools.

Councilmember D’Andre Jones said while he acknowledges the controversial nature of the subject of SROs, Fayetteville’s police department stands apart from certain cities where officers frequently face criticism for their conduct.

Reynolds agreed, and said Fayetteville’s officers are also trained to run toward gunfire in an effort to limit the damages from an active shooter. He said they proved that in their reaction to the gunman who killed former officer Stephen Carr in 2019. He said he knows having police officers in schools is no guarantee that a shooting won’t occur, but he said he’s certain his officers would be able to save lives if they were on duty during a shooting.

Berna said he’s long supported the city’s SRO program and he’ll continue to do so moving forward.

“If I’m wrong on SROs, I can lay my head on a pillow at night knowing I did right by our community’s children,” said Berna. “If the people in opposition of SROs are wrong, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

Councilmember Sarah Bunch said in looking at the evolution of both the Police Department and the district, particularly in their recent additions of social workers, it’s clear that SROs aren’t the only focus when it comes to addressing safety. She said the comments she’s received from constituents are in overwhelming support of adding more SROs to schools. She said most people have been thoughtful in their comments and have acknowledged that there is a broader issue that needs to be addressed regarding gun violence, but nearly everyone has said they believe it’s important to have a police presence in schools.

The council voted to limit discussion from 5 minutes to 3 minutes in an effort to accommodate more public comment.

During public comment, 19 people spoke in favor of the resolution, including students, parents, PTO presidents, staff and board members from Fayetteville Public Schools, as well as the district’s superintendent, John L. Colbert. One person spoke against the proposal.

Before the vote, Mayor Lioneld Jordan said he wants local parents and school board members to know that his job is to keep kids safe and that’s what he intends to work toward. He said he has supported SROs in the past and he will continue to do so in the future.

“We want you to feel comfortable and to feel that your children are being taken care of,” said Jordan. “We are going to put an officer in every school.”