Elementary school resource officers to return

Published 1:59 pm Friday, October 21, 2022

School resource officers will be returning to Isle of Wight County’s elementary schools for the first time in a decade.

The Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office has received a 45-month, $267,743 grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which will pay nine months of salaries and fringe benefits for four new sheriff’s deputies for five years. Isle of Wight supervisors plan to combine the grant funds with roughly $220,000 in unspent money Isle of Wight County Schools returned to the county at the end of the 2021-22 school year to fund the officers’ uniforms, vehicles and equipment.

The grant will fund the deputies’ salaries and benefits from Oct. 1 through June 30, with the county bearing the responsibility of funding the cost of salaries and benefits for the remaining three months.

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Isle of Wight’s two high schools and two middle schools already have a designated deputy assigned to them during the school year. Patrol deputies also routinely visit the elementary schools but aren’t stationed there every day.

Isle of Wight supervisors included funding in the county’s 2022-23 fiscal year budget in May for one additional officer to rotate among the elementary schools in lieu of a proposal by now-retired Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton in which Isle of Wight County Schools would have taken over funding the cost of placing deputies in every elementary, middle and high school during the school year.

By June, the Board of Supervisors and School Board had resumed talk of placing a deputy in each of the county’s nine public schools in the wake of a May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.

The new grant money and unspent school funds, coupled with the existing budgeted deputy, will allow for one permanent full-time officer in each of the county’s five elementary schools.

Isle of Wight used to have a full-time officer in each of its elementary schools, but retired Sheriff Mark Marshall reassigned them in 2012 as patrol deputies. Sheriff James Clarke Jr., who’d served as Marshall’s chief deputy before succeeding him as sheriff in 2018, recalled at an Oct. 6 supervisors work session that the county’s street patrols had been “hemorrhaging” at the time.

“There was nobody working the street, one person on midnight shift,” Clarke said.

But when Supervisor Joel Acree asked if, in five years when the grant money runs out, Isle of Wight would again find itself without school resource officers, Clarke deemed the possibility unlikely.

“The world has changed – gun violence, active shooters, mass shootings – it’s relevant now,” Clarke said. “Mr. Acree, I would be hard-pressed to believe if we continue at this pace in our world that any sheriff would take SROs out of the schools if they are already in.”

The terms of the grant require the new officers to come to Isle of Wight with at least three years of law enforcement experience – ensuring that the placement of officers won’t be delayed by new hires having to complete police academy training.

The supervisors voted unanimously on Oct. 20 to officially accept the grant and amend the county’s budget to reflect the additional funding.

“We are in the process of filling those positions and anticipate having them filled as soon as the background process is complete,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Tommy Potter.