Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is reminding school districts about a new grant program designed to help fund school resource officer programs and improve the safety of students.

“I’ve always believed that the No. 1 priority of any level of government is public safety,” Zoeller said. “But we tend to skip over that, or take it for granted. But it’s something we need to remind ourselves. We don’t need another shooting in a school to remind us of the necessity.”

Already visiting South Bend, Anderson, and media in Fort Wayne, Zoeller stopped in Wheatfield and met with reporters in Lake County on Tuesday to remind school administrators that the deadline for the grant is Sept. 30.

The grant program has $10 million earmarked for two years, and allows school corporations to apply to up to $50,000 with matching funds. Zoeller hopes to see the grant included in the state budget during the next budget cycle.

A study conducted at the end of 2012 by the Office of the Indiana Attorney General determined that parents, law officers and administrators were supportive of the concept, but realized funding prevented the option. Nine of 10 school administrators and law enforcement interviewed for the study recommend hiring a school resource officer, but three of 10 believed they had the funds to hire one in the future.

Zoeller added that the study was completed before the tragedy in Newton, Mass., and the interest in school safety has since skyrocketed.

‘A friend in law
enforcement’

“What I hear from other states and in Indiana where they have school resource officers,” he said, “you can immediately see an impact where they address things like drugs and weapons in the school.”

Good resource officers try to connect with students, instilling trust and respect with law enforcement, instead of seeing an officer as a threat. They can also address issues like bullying without bringing in the full criminal justice system.

“It’s really a community of students that now have a friend in law enforcement,” he said, “and they don’t look at them as the bad guy.”

He also favored the school resource officers over arming teachers, since the officers receive an additional 40 hours of training to work with students, on top of their police training.

“It almost goes to the point that we don’t have the proper respect to those officers,” Zoeller said. “If you respect the role of a sworn law official, it’s more than someone with a gun. I do think there’s a major difference.”

He added that he didn’t take a side during the legislative process, since he would be required to enforce whatever law is passed.

Zoeller said the funds are designed to help start programs, or support schools that already have an officer, but the money is not restricted. It could also be used to hire a consultant to create a security plan, or purchase security equipment like ID scanners, or reinforced windows.

About a quarter of schools within the state have reported having a school resource officer prior to Senate Bill 1 becoming law.

“My goal is to expand the number of schools that have this,” Zoeller said. “If they don’t have one, they really should take a close look at trying to get one.”