This past spring, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond discussed plans to initiate an experimental school resource officer program at Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, an elementary school in South Chattanooga.
"I asked a private corporation for a $44,000 grant to take two city officers and use them in a GRIP program," he said Tuesday.
The GRIP -- Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership -- is a hybrid effort in Anaheim, Calif., among law enforcement, the district attorney, schools and community groups to reduce truancy, gang involvement and crime.
The Anaheim police chief said the program is pro-active.
Apparently so. It begins in elementary school.
"I've seen nothing but positives from this program," said Shannon Wyatt, principal at K-6 Hansen Elementary School in Anaheim.
The GRIP program allows officers to teach a four-week class to fifth- and sixth-graders, works with parents in multiple ways to increase parenting and involvement and offers free tickets to Anaheim Angels games to all students with perfect attendance.
Truancy rates, graffiti, gang involvement -- Wyatt said they've all decreased at her school. One student -- whose father was murdered in the streets -- was (understandably) showing problematic behavior before an SRO befriended the fatherless child.
"Now he's here all the time. He loves school. He's got a smile on his face," she said. "If you are lucky enough to be a part of this GRIP program, you need to grab hold."
Bob Brooks believes so, too.
"The genesis of the gang member ... can be started in first grade," he said.
Brooks moved to Chattanooga in the 1980s and began work as a behavior specialist in area schools. Brooks strongly believes that the teenagers we see today in Juvenile Court can be identified in elementary school.
"The teachers want them out of classrooms," he said. "They're a pain in the ass. They cause problems and disturb."
Brooks' theory: Well-trained and empathetic school resource officers can begin identifying -- and befriending -- these children early, helping steer them away from street life and into a positive one.
"If we get kids early, we can make significant changes," he said.
Brooks recalled at least four meetings during the spring with the "upper echelon" of county and city police department personnel. Hammond applied for the grant, summer passed, then Brooks got the bad news.
"The funding, however, could not be found and the program was scrapped," Brooks said.
Hammond confirmed this.
"I think the controversy affected my ability to secure the grant," he said.
The controversy? The media attention around his unbalanced budget which in August, as the school year started, left a once-funded SRO program short-staffed.
Hammond said the grant was moving forward until "I got flak from [Hamilton County Commissioner Fred] Skillern over the budget," and his chances for funding went dry.
Alexis Bogo, executive director of the Hamico Foundation -- the charity arm of Chattem that Hammond asked for the grant -- said her foundation was approached in the spring about the program, but "there was never a promise to fund it."
Adding the GRIP program would more than double the funding amount for educational programs that Hamico already provides Donaldson.
"The program was certainly worthwhile," she said. "In this case, we just chose to stay with the programs we're currently funding."
Sad, isn't it? I've used all these sentences today to tell this news of how this program collapsed before it even started, when I really just needed one:
Once again, a deeply needed SRO program is missing at schools in Hamilton County.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...