Clayton County schools is set to spend $2.6 million to keep police officers in schools, after the sheriff’s office decided to pull its deputies from school duty.
When middle and high school students return to class in August for the 2013-14 school year, they’ll be met by a new group of security resource officers, or SROs, who work for the school district. The Clayton County sheriff’s department is slated to end its contract with the school system next month.
As of now, the 51,000-student school district is one of the few large school districts in Georgia without its own police force, and it’s got a big job ahead assembling a full-fledged police force in time for the new school year.
Clayton may be late getting into the school-run security business, but it may actually be ahead of other school districts in one area that worries parents: keeping kids out of jail. While parents generally want police officers in school, there are some who question whether police in schools often means kids are arrested for violation of school rules that used to be solved by teachers and principals.
Clayton’s answer has been a 10-year-old, school-court pact designed to reduce the number of school-related offenses in court. The program is now a national model.
Still, some question the expense of putting cops in schools. Many school districts that rushed to form school-run police forces in recent years are learning that more cops in school doesn’t necessarily mean safer schools or fewer problems, said Decatur attorney J. Tom Morgan, author of the 2007 book “Ignorance is No Defense: A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law.”
“They’re realizing this is a very expensive proposition for the taxpayer,” said Morgan, a former prosecutor who now handles criminal defense cases in which most of his clients are under the age of 25. Morgan said creating school-run police forces has led to an increase in school arrests and a distrust of law enforcement among students.
Clayton County Chief Judge Steven Teske, who tired of seeing juveniles in his court over school-related offenses, agrees. But he is not opposed to police officers in schools.
Teske worked with the school system, courts, police and other community services to create a plan that ultimately reduced the number of kids appearing in court for school-related offenses. Now, instead of focusing on arresting students, security resource officers are spending more time in school getting to know students, Teske said. Under the Clayton plan, students can’t be arrested for schoolyard fights, disrupting classes, disorderly conduct or other misdemeanors.
Clayton’s approach appears to be paying off.
— The number of arrests by police on Clayton school campuses has fallen 83 percent.
— The presence of serious weapons on school grounds has dropped 70 percent.
— Juvenile crime rates in the county have fallen 60 percent.
A look at this school year alone shows the Clayton protocol continues to work. Security resource officers, for example, have filed 895 incident reports since the start of the school year last August, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The incidents include school fights, drugs, disorderly conduct, threats, thefts, weapons, and vandalism. Some 336 arrests were made, which, according to Morgan, is relatively low for a school district as large as Clayton’s.
Despite such strides, some in the community worry about the school system taking over security matters. Parents have mixed reactions about the current group of security resource officers.
Parent Mary Dewberry supports having them in schools. But she’s concerned that the new set of officers may not be able to replicate the bond that has developed between the current SRO, provided by the sheriff’s office, and students at her sons’ school, Adamson Middle School in Rex.
“She gets to the meat of the problem. She’s there as a mediator between the children,” said Dewberry, vice president of Adamson PTA and president for the Council of PTAs for Clayton County. “She’s involved in the lives of the children … and parents are encouraged to come in and talk about their concerns.”
Interim Superintendent Luvenia Jackson insists having a school-run security force would give schools more direction and accountability over the officer. Currently, the officers report to the sheriff’s department, which often pulled them out during the school day to deal with larger problems in the community.
“These people would be assigned to specific school sites. They wouldn’t have to do anything besides (being an) SRO,” Jackson said. “They’d be dedicated to improving community and school relationships.”