Gov. Bill Haslam will appoint a task force to look comprehensively at school safety in Tennessee amid intense state and national reflection over last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The governor said Thursday that the group will include law enforcement, education leaders, mental health professionals, and legislators. He added that he wants their work completed quickly in case the state legislature, which is expected to adjourn in April, needs to authorize additional spending.

“There could be something that affects this budget …,” he told reporters. “We’ll turn in a supplemental budget in about three weeks. There is a sense of urgency about that in case there is something that needs to be addressed.”

Haslam also questioned the wisdom of a bill now moving through the legislature that would open the door to arming select teachers with handguns.

“My first thought is I don’t think that’s the answer because I think it’s a very small percentage teachers that would want to be armed,” he said.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. David Byrd, said he’s only bringing up his proposal because most schools districts don’t have enough funding to hire law enforcement to patrol their schools. Only 40 percent of Tennessee schools are watched over by law enforcement known as school resource officers, according to testimony before a House subcommittee earlier this week.

“I don’t know the answer,” Haslam said of finding additional money for school security. “Obviously, we’re looking at everything. We’ve got to figure out what’s fiscally possible both for us and also the local education authorities and come up with a plan.”

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the legislature would be wise to listen to teachers as they consider Byrd’s bill to arm some school personnel.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits Middle College High School in Memphis as part of her statewide tour of schools.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

“I have had multiple emails and/or conversations with teachers to the point of this is not something I would prefer to do. I have very rarely, if any, heard the opposite,” McQueen said while visiting Middle College High School in Memphis.

The bill passed in a House subcommittee on Wednesday and is scheduled to be considered next Tuesday by the full Civil Justice Committee. The proposal is opposed by the state’s largest teachers union, as well as by Haslam’s administration and the state Department of Education.

McQueen’s department doesn’t have an alternative, but the commissioner said it’s taking stock of current school safety resources, as well as potential additional funding sources for hiring more officers.

“We’re also looking at the big picture of mental health, school psychologists, school counselors,” she said. “Let’s have a big landscape view of all the resources that are available and then make some recommendations based on that data.”