Sheriff Wade and lawmaker speak on school security

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Jul. 23—Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, upset him in two ways — the loss of lives and the bungled response by first responders and other law enforcement officers on many levels.

Wade knows about the multi-leveled issues the entire country is facing because they also exist in his territory of Calhoun County.

"I pray to God we never have that here," he said as he paused and looked downward in worry. But then he looked up and said, "We want to do the very best we can for our children, who are our greatest asset."

The Uvalde shooting has caused Wade and others in law enforcement officers to analyze the response. He said it's easy to criticize others from the security of one's own home, but steps need to be taken to improve school safety.

Much of Wade's concern centers on the lack of funding for his office. With almost 20 schools throughout the county, and with between 8,000 and 9,000 students to protect, he wants to hire many more trained law officers.

He said he believes times have changed. Having only a retired law officer visit a school occasionally is no longer an option for protecting schools. Today's school resource officer must be a deputy sheriff who is assigned to a school, and the county needs substitute officers, officers for extracurricular activities and a supervisor over them all.

"They should be well-trained and eager to do their job," he said, "and not have it as a side gig."

Hiring and keeping trained officers cost money, and Wade said the legislators in Alabama have not provided enough to hire more officers.

State Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said she taught school for more than 45 years, and that Wade was once a pupil of hers. She empathizes with him and hopes the Alabama legislature that is voted into office in November will address the need for more SROs.

"I believe if we start now, as he is doing, and network with the next legislature, there will be more funds to hire school officers," she said. "Of course, I would vote for that. We need more funds for school officers to help reduce the violence that is occurring. We need to put more emphasis on it now and plan in advance to find new resources."

Wade believes another basic problem in Alabama is the lack of funding for helping those who are mentally ill.

"Years ago, mental health funding was gutted by legislators," Wade said. "The mentally ill are running around in our streets. What do we do with people displaying mental issues? If they do not break the law, we can do nothing."

Pam Howard is the Democratic candidate for the state House District 40. If elected this fall, she said she will support restoring funds for mental health treatments.

"We did a great disservice to all our counties and people," she said. "With COVID-19, the substance abuse issues and poverty, mental health has become a terrific problem. The fact that it falls to law enforcement is not fair to them or to the community. I definitely believe it is something we need to invest in and expand. There should be people trained to handle mental health issues in every law enforcement agency and in our schools."

Wade suggests that the lack of help for the mentally ill is contributing to the problem of gun issues.

"Properly using a gun, by a law-abiding citizen, is wonderful," and he said, and cited the incident in Indiana where a gun-carrying individual killed a shooter. "Guns are not good or evil. They are a tool and have no conscience, no soul, nor a belief. The issue is not the gun but the evil heart. We need to fix that in our society."

On July 7, two weeks after the May 24 Uvalde shooting, Wade said law enforcement officers from throughout the county came together with school superintendents, executives and members of local school boards. They discussed the issues of safety, mental illness and the pros and cons of guns.

"We asked what we could do better to keep a shooting from happening here in the first place," Wade said. "Jacksonville State University has the Law Enforcement Center for Best Practices. They hosted the meeting and said there needs to be more training given to every SRO and law enforcement officer. They said we need better communication and response plans, two things we can improve to prevent a shooting from happening here. We do not want to make our schools an easy target."

Wade told The Anniston Star how sheriffs can do a few small things, which were discussed at JSU, such as making sure all school doors stay locked and providing gas cards to SROs so they do not have to take the time to travel back to the sheriff's office to fill up their state-provided car. He hopes to figure out a simpler way to help SROs fill out their reports, so they have their eyes on the school and the students and not on so many documents.

Something else Wade did recently was to purchase protective shields for each officer.

He feels the same pressure all law enforcement officers face today because residents are saying they want officers to do the right thing, all the while criticizing them for either acting too aggressively or for not acting at all. He feels that this pressure from the public places law officers in a tough place.

Finally, there is the issue of law officers having the mindset of avoiding risks. He believes each law enforcement officer must remember that his or her job requires the determination to protect people at all costs.

"I signed up to be a servant and a protector," he said, "and I have only one life to give. I pray I have the right amount of courage and humbleness. Everyone here in my office wants to do the right thing. These school shootings have Americans upset, and we all wish we could stop them."