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Davis: APS police officers can better identify sensitive relationships, head issues off earlier

Superintendent Erroll B. Davis and the Atlanta school board discusses implementing its own police force. Another APS Community Listening Session to discuss ideas on how to enhance school safety set for Wednesday.

As reported here at Midtown Patch following last week’s Atlanta Public Schools' safety and transportation meeting at Grady High School, the district is considering moving towards 100 percent APS law enforcement services, which would replace Atlanta police officers currently working in the schools with full-time APS employees as Resource Officers assigned to individual schools on a more permanent basis.

The School Resource Officer (SRO) program is hoped to give consistency and improved services with focused training that is scalable and leads to safe schools according to presentation at Monday's Board of Education meeting.

The presentation, which is included with this story, was an overview of conversations that began last year around climate, culture and safety. Superintendent Erroll B. Davis and the board discussed further the plan, which has been in the making for about a year and not a direct result of the December tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., saying that a homegrown APS force would give the district enhanced control over security and taking preventative measures.

Currently, APS is being served by 55 full-time and 233 part-time Atlanta police officers, and 70 percent of the district’s safety personnel reports to APD. The district believes this weakens its ability to proactively address crime issues, many which originate from bullying or other aggressive behaviors, on school grounds.

Other metro area school districts in Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, and Cherokee counties have their own security forces. Including last week’s sparsely-attended meeting at Grady, APS has hosted three recent Community Listening Sessions to discuss ideas on how to enhance school culture, climate, safety and student transportation.

A fourth such meeting will be held Wednesday, Jan. 16, 6 - 8 p.m. at Bolton Academy, 2268 Adams Dr., NW, (404) 802-8350.

According to the APS-provided Live Blog of Monday's meeting, Davis told the board,What we need is a more full time commitment. With the cluster framework we want to have officers who are there full time and learn all of the kids in the cluster as they move from elementary to middle to high school. The officers can do planning among themselves, identify sensitive relationships and head these issues off much earlier.”

The presentation at Monday’s board meeting detailed how APS began implementing a new safety program, beginning with the Douglass cluster, with a response tiered across four levels: Public Safety, Technical Security, Cooperative Partnerships & Emergency Management.

The Douglass cluster was chosen to test the school resource model because Douglass led the district with crimes against persons and crimes against property. While the district is seen a decrease against crimes against people, there has been an increase against property, although APS said it anticipates anticipate ending the school year with a decrease in both areas.

During the presentation, APS said it is moving towards the Triad School Resource Officer Model: Counselor/Social Worker-Law Enforcement Officer-Teacher. The Triad Model consists of full time employees who are armed law enforcement personnel, and who are trained in school specific topics and taught counseling and resource skills.

The district had said it will present more information on the development cost of such a police force within the next few months.

Below is the Monday discussion among Davis and board members Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, Nancy Meister, Brenda J. Muhammad, LaChandra D. Butler Burks, as well as APS Director of Security Chief Marquenta Sands, as tweeted by the APS Twitter account @apsupdate. Full Live Blog coverage of Monday's meeting can be found here.

Davis: What we need is a more full time commitment. With the cluster framework we want to have officers who are there full time and learn all of the kids in the cluster as they move from elementary to middle to high school. The officers can do planning among themselves, identify sensitive relationships and head these issues off much earlier. There is a lot more prevention in this plan than in the past. The question is where do we get full time officers and there we need to be careful as the city is trying to put more officers on the street and we want to be more respectful of that. I don’t want anyone, however, to be surprised about the direction that we are going.

Muhammad: Are we saying we would be limiting or replacing officers?

Sands: We would phase out the school detective unit while maintain our relationship with APD for additional support.

Muhammad: So we are going to phase out the school detective unit made up of APD officers?

Sands: Yes

Muhammad: And we believe that would work better for us?

Sands: We are exploring 100% Atlanta Public Schools police officers across all areas of safety and security.

Muhammad: Have we looked at how that would impact our relationship with APD when it comes to 911 calls and emergencies?

Sands: Yes, working together, collaboratively is going to work for the entire city.

Muhammad: At some point will we get an outline and you share what this will look like?

Sands: Yes, we are working with leadership on that presentation.

Muhammad: Are we looking at intervention programs? Not just locking them up? Mediation?

Sands: Absolutely, we would have a programmatic focus.

Davis: Like she mentioned earlier we would make sure officers had a cadre of appropriate responses as opposed to “you broke a law, lets lock you up.” Under the present structure we cannot train 233 part time officers who can only work 20 hours a week. Our schools are open more than 20 hours a week. We want trained officers and continuity in our buildings and we want them to have a better understanding of chain of command in regards to safety and security. The APD officers while working with us, do not work for us and every once in a while we learn that.

H-Kinnane: When you say going to 100% I hope you don’t mean going directly to 100% because we lose a lot of… (talks about officers with years worth of internal knowledge about the district). It seems like we could have a need for both.

Davis: We will have some need for part-time officers.

Butler-Burks: In the past, even under better financial circumstances, the start up was so expensive that as a result of that we started building that relationship with APD. I think this information is good but I don’t want to get so far down the line and then come back and say we can’t afford to do it. It was extremely expensive to start up a police department even though we are one of the few districts without one. You’re talking about fleet…there is a lot that goes into putting on human bodies. That’s probably what makes me the most nervous of all.  Have we looked at the cost and what that means?

Sands: We have looked at numbers and we will pull it all together and have it available for you. We have a lot of what we need already when it comes to fleet. Training will not be our biggest cost. Uniforms and numbers will be our biggest costs. What we’ve learned from our pilot is that when you have officers who are fully engaged, you don’t need big numbers. Back then we had 6 and 7 officers in schools. With this pilot (at Douglass) we actually cut the number of officers and now we think we can cut it by one more person.

Meister: Have you looked at practices in other districts?

Sands: Yes, metro & statewide and also with Council of Great City Schools.  DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton, Cherokee all have their own agencies.

Meister: Have they had them for a substantial amount of time?

Sands: Yes, 12 years for the least amount of time. These programs have been growing since the 90′s. In all of the programs where I have read the research on the programs they all show positive feedback and results. There is limited data showing a decrease in violence, but there are a lot variables that play into that.

Meister: The level of training, how would that compare?

Sands: We would only recruit experienced officers. We would work to ensure that first of all we recruit the best, look at lessons learned from other districts and training. Three years ago, we actually participated with Atlanta in an active shooter training. These are all realities that we can make happen. I don’t see training being a showstopper.

Muhammad: You talk about recruiting the best. Will these officers be post certified?

Sands: Yes, all will be post certified.

Muhammad: Even if they are retired?

Sands: Yes.

Muhammad: Do we actually now have a police department?

Sands: Yes, the Atlanta Public Schools Police Department

Muhammad: These SRO’s will have arrest authority?

Sands: That is correct.

Davis says that a full report will be ready for the board in 2-3 months. McDaniel acknowledges that this presentation was put on the agenda today because of its timeliness.

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