Campus cops or counselors? Marietta considers new job duties for school officers

The Marietta city school system is considering a plan to refocus the work of their campus cops to make their jobs less about school discipline and more about working as counselors and educators. The change was proposed after a group of former students called on the school board to remove all police officers from schools, citing the need to address racial concerns.

While the Marietta School Board has taken no action on most of the students’ requests, emailed to them in early July, board members on July 14 adopted a list of steps proposed by Superintendent Dr. Grant Rivera to address racial inequities in the district.

Among them: Refocusing the work of campus police so that their roles are less about discipline.

Rivera said he wants to redefine campus officers’ roles from being primarily used to enforce school discipline and giving orders to students. He wants the officers’ work to align with the National Association of School Resource Officer model as counselor, educator and officer.

“I feel like we don’t have to disregard all of their value,” Rivera said. “We have to get back to the right balance of what their role should be.”

The push to reform school policing has popped up in other metro school districts in Gwinnett, Fulton and Atlanta, and around the nation following nationwide protests that began following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody. So far, no metro school systems have removed police officers from their campuses.

READ | Groups want CCSD to eliminate police department, hire more Black teachers

The Marietta Police Department employs five school resource officers and a full-time patrol officer who teaches a course on law enforcement and criminal justice at the high school. Police Chief Dan Flynn said the department has always worked cooperatively with teachers and administrators with the goal of maintaining a safe and secure environment for Marietta students and parents.

The police department’s school resource officer program began more than 20 years ago, and the department has worked over the years to “harden the schools against the prospect of active shooters that so many other systems have sadly experienced,” Flynn said.

“In addition, the Marietta Police Department works very hard to prevent gangs from recruiting students and getting a foothold in the Marietta City School System,” Flynn said. “It is our intention to continue with both of these important missions.”

A 2014 graduate of Marietta High, Miaya Williams, said her two brothers, who are also recent graduates, told her they did not feel safe with officers on campus. She said they felt like they had “targets on their backs.” She said the school system should invest in hiring more social workers and counselors who are trained to respond to students’ social and emotional needs.

Marietta High School student body president Leila Simmons said using officers as counselors or teachers wouldn’t work. Simmons said she and her friends would not feel comfortable “spilling their guts” to a school resource officer.

“It’s something that many students feel all over Georgia, all over America,” she said.

READ | Group wants Cobb schools to address racism, bias in classroom

Several districts around the country have started removing police from schools, including Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; and Denver, Colorado. Across metro Atlanta, some districts have received requests from the community to take similar action, although none of their school boards have voted to change how officers are used.

A grassroots organization, Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline, has called on the state’s largest school district to remove officers from its buildings. Two organizations, La Gente de Cobb and Stronger Together, have also called on the Cobb County School District to disband its police department.

Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Seth Coleman said that system has received a “few comments and requests” over the past several months about its use of officers in schools.

Over the last four years, the Atlanta schools officers have seen the majority of their time used as counselors and educators, Coleman said. As a result of that change in their relationship with students, he said the system has seen a 50% drop in students charged with crimes from 2015-16 to 2018-19.

READ | Gwinnett educators demand diversity, equality in curriculum

Dr. Shannon A. Flounnory, Fulton County Schools executive director of safety and security, said its police department supports students by acting as mentors and unofficial counselors. They also conduct sessions on drugs, gangs, smoking and vaping and the responsible use of social media.

“Clearly articulated understandings of the roles and constitutional limitations of police, which does not include an enforcement of school rules, helps create a constructive relationship between students, administrators, teachers and officers,” he said.

Marietta school board chair Allison Gruehn and board member Angela Orange agree with Rivera’s proposal for changes in Marietta’s schools, adding they see value in tweaking school resource officers’ responsibilities rather than scrapping the program altogether.

“I want us to look at that and see what’s the most effective use of the school resource officer and how we can allow them to support students in school setting,” Gruehn said.

Rivera’s said no formal presentation to the school board is scheduled at this time, but the next steps would be collaboration between district staff and school resource officers.

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In addition to his proposal to re-direct school officers, Rivera also said he wants to tackle disparities among racial groups in discipline and enrollment in advanced courses. For example, Marietta High School has about 2,462 students enrolled. While white students are 19% of the school’s enrollment, they make up 33% of those enrolled in honors classes. Black students make up 38% of the schools’ enrollment, but only 31% of those in honors classes.

Former student Williams was skeptical the proposals will take place. She said it’s the same ideas “they’ve been trying to do” since she was enrolled at Marietta High School.

“Everything they are saying now is stuff I’ve been hearing (about) since 2010 and 2011,” she said of the system’s resolutions.

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