In the wake of recent shootings, Atlanta Public Schools wants to put more police on campus by creating a school-run force.
The aim of putting officers on campus every day would be to more effectively prevent crime and defuse conflicts with words instead of weapons, officials say.
“We’re talking about a framework where we have full-time officers, where they’re here five days a week all day long, where they learn the kids, where the kids confide in them, where they can start to spot emotional problems and issues before they get to this sort of crisis state,” Superintendent Erroll Davis said after an accidental shooting Wednesday at Grady High School.
The school district hasn’t revealed details of its policing plan. Currently, its security costs are the highest in the metro area despite having the fifth-largest student population.
Atlanta schools spent $9.2 million on school security in 2012. APS currently has 55 officers working in schools each day, spread among 103 learning sites across the city, district spokesman Stephen Alford said. In addition, the school system pays $1.6 million a year to Atlanta police to run a 20-person school detectives unit, the police department said.
Surrounding school districts — in Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties — have run their own police operations for years at less expense. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that security costs ranged from $6.2 million in Fulton to $2.6 million in Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district.
Atlanta schools hire off-duty officers from the Atlanta Police Department to serve as school resource officers, responsible for patrolling campuses and keeping students safe.
But those officers work part-time, leave when off-campus crimes take priority, and they’re more accustomed to dealing with adult criminals than young students. “They haven’t had the training that’s necessary for a law enforcement officer to work in the (school) system,” said Garry McGiboney, associate state superintendent for policy at the Georgia Department of Education.
A spokesman for the Atlanta Police Department declined to comment.
Police have handled several shootings and fights at Atlanta schools this year.
An Atlanta police officer used a stun gun on two seventh-grade girls, ages 12 and 13, when they were fighting on a crowded school bus at Inman Middle School Feb. 8, according to a police report. The police department is reviewing the incident to make sure the officer followed protocol.
Last week, a 17-year-old girl accidentally shot herself in the thigh at Grady High School after she brought a pink .380-caliber handgun on campus. And a student was shot in the neck Jan. 31 at Price Middle School.
Atlanta school administrators have been considering whether to create a school-run force for about a year, before the recent spate of school violence.
“The Price and Grady situations make it a headline issue, but our principals have been asking for consistent coverage for a while,” school board Chairman Reuben McDaniel said. “Whether we do it through a different relationship with Atlanta or through our own police force, we have to find a way to better manage schools and head some of this off.”
The size of a potential school police department is unclear; the school district is still finalizing its proposal before presenting it to the Atlanta school board, possibly as soon as the monthly meeting Monday.
The greatest benefit to having police officers in schools is speed, Fulton County Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale said. “It allows us to respond locally and quickly when an incident does occur at the school,” she said.
Fulton has 65 school resource officers, with one at every middle school, two at every north Fulton high school and three at every south Fulton high school.
In Gwinnett, the officers serve three roles — police, teachers and counselors, school system spokeswoman Sloan Roach said.
“Our school resource officers take a community policing approach,” she said. “The teachers know (the students) and the students know them. In addition to serving as police officers, they also serve in educational roles in terms of sessions with parents and teachers.”
School district police departments can improve safety if the officers receive more extensive training than they would in other policing jobs and if they work closely with municipal police to conduct investigations, said Ron Stevens, director of the National School Safety Center in California.
“It’s important to have the right mind-set when these police departments are put into place,” Stevens said. “We’re not trying to be a big-boots operation and see how many kids we can throw in detention.”