Veteran lawman’s toughest job yet: Keeping youngsters safe in school

In his 30 years in law enforcement, Clarence Cox has helped create Georgia’s Department of Homeland Security, overseen security for the prestigious G8 gathering of world leaders and nabbed hardened criminals and drug dealers.

But none of that prepared Cox for his latest gig, which he says is his toughest yet: schoolchildren.

Cox has had his hands full lately as Clayton County schools’ security chief. In the past several weeks, a string of incidents where kids brought weapons to school led to lockdowns. Fed up, Cox and crew responded with a surprise sweep of high schools and middle schools.

He’s gotten a close-up view of a generation of what Cox calls “cyber kids”: children being raised by parents via cellphones, text messages and other technological stand-ins; and an unrelenting stream of adolescent sexting that would make a seasoned porn star blush.

It leaves a 52-year-old lawman weary.

“When I grew up the schools and churches were the safest places around.” Now, “I’m astonished by what I’ve seen,” said the Atlanta native who became director of safety and security for Clayton County Public Schools in July. “I had no idea kids were doing what they’re doing. People are talking about the school-to-prison pipeline — and I want to prevent that — but some of these kids, you can’t save them.”

But that doesn’t keep Cox from trying.

After spending most of his career in undercover drug work, Cox wanted to try to steer kids from a life of crime.

He couldn’t have picked a better place. Like any school district, The 52,000-student Clayton system, an urban district with a sizable transient population, has its share of challenges, as demonstrated by its struggle to regain accreditation in 2011. But collaboration with local law enforcement and the juvenile justice system has made it a national model for keeping kids out of the prison system.

“He is a perfect fit to be police chief of a school system,” said Stephen Teske, Clayton’s chief judge of Juvenile Court and a national expert on reducing the youth recidivism rate. “He understands teenagers and he works to keep kids in school and out of the courts.”

Clayton school officials decided to create their own security force about a year ago after Sheriff Victor Hill announced his deputies would no longer be involved in the district’s school resource officers program.

“We didn’t want a police state,” said school Superintendent Luvenia Jackson. “There needed to be SROs who were dedicated to that mission. He’d have to take on 24/7 everything that was involved.”

Cox has taken that directive to heart.

You’re not likely to catch him sitting behind a desk. He’s busy putting out fires, sometimes literally.

When a fan caught fire March 29 in a closet in Mt. Zion High School, setting off the sprinkler system and flooding almost half a wing at the school, Cox oversaw the response. Then he headed over to Morrow High School’s prom. There was no time for dancing but he did manage to take a few pictures of the kids and email them to the principal and other district officials praising students’ conduct.

His day starts around 6:30 a.m (just about the time 24,000 Clayton children are getting on school buses) and goes well into the night. He’ll make the rounds at schools, a black and blue cellphone constantly in each hand — the same hands that push school doors to make sure they’re secured.

Cox has also gone the extra step to keep a child from being locked up.

He happened to be at one high school when a student became disorderly and disruptive. “Chief Cox tried to coax the young man into an office so he could talk to him but the young man became belligerent and started a fight with Chief Cox,” Teske recalled. “I know this student and he’s a really big fella. It ended up in a wrestling match to the ground and Chief Cox had to put handcuffs on him.”

Instead of taking him to court or detention, Cox took the student into a room, calmed him down and removed the handcuffs. The two then walked around campus talking.

“Chief Cox learned a lot about the young man and the trauma he’s going through at home,” Teske said. “He also found out that this young man was in a gang and wanted to get out of the gang. Most police officers would have simply said, ‘You’re going to get your deservings. You’re going to jail.’ ”

Teske said that encounter is the “epitome of the Positive Student Engagement model,” developed and used in Clayton by school and juvenile justice officials to help keep kids out of jail. It’s a model more school systems across the country are using.

Cox has a penchant for bow ties and Harley Davidson motorcycles. When he’s not in the schools, he speaking to churches, civic clubs and PTA groups.

Concern for his own children is one reason he’s still friends with his ex-wife, Cyd Cox, who is Georgia PTA district 7 director. ( The lawman has been known to drop off pies at his daughter’s school upon request.)

The commitment to his own children made it that much tougher for Cox to reconcile the problems he sees in today’s schools, Cyd Cox said.

“Respect for adults has diminished in my mind than what I’m used to,” Chief Cox said during the recent guns-and-drugs sweep of the high schools. “A lot of these kids feel like it’s a game. Some of these things they do will affect their life for the rest of their life.”

Cox’s immersion into issues plaguing schools in metro Atlanta and the rest of the country was immediate.

A month into his new job, the shooting at Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Academy in DeKalb County prompted Cox to launch an app called iWatch, which lets people anonymously report suspicious or criminal activities, using their cellphones. In turn, people can get reports about news alerts and problems in Clayton. The app is modeled after one used in some Texas school districts.

A few months later, Cox’s team was able to help solve the execution-style killing of one teen whose family had just moved to Clayton. An officer went undercover posing as a student on a bus and overheard details that helped lead to an arrest.

What undercover intelligence doesn’t glean, trust does. As a result of the district’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign urging students to speak up when they see or hear something amiss, students have given school security officers information, including reports of guns on campus.

“We’ve been able to adapt techniques in other arenas of law enforcement and it has proven to be pretty fruitful for us,” Cox said. “Instead of thinking outside the box we’ve just got to think like there’s no box.”

Debra Williams, who oversees field operations for Cox’s security force, said, “He’s always been a straight shooter.” Cox recently coaxed Williams, whom he worked with as undercover drug agents, out of retirement. “He’s not afraid to tell you what’s on his mind and his heart,” Williams said.

What’s on his mind now is more money and resources for his staff. That may be forthcoming, Jackson said: “We do have to increase that budget.”

For many in the school system, the extra officers and cars can’t come soon enough.

“I would like to see the department expanded,” said Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association, which represents about 2,000 employees. “It doesn’t seem to be quite large enough to be at every school and respond to situations. I’d just like it to be where they have an officer at every school.”

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