Schools beef up security for new school year

Jim Taylor’s job is to worry. Worry and prevent his greatest fears, such as an armed intruder harming Gwinnett County students, from becoming reality.

As the new school year begins, security and safety officials in metro Atlanta districts are putting together new plans and procedures to protect students and staff.

This fall, Gwinnett will have — for the first time — armed school resource officers in each middle school in the district. So, too, will Cobb County. DeKalb County, meanwhile, is spending about $7 million on new cameras, six new elementary school resource officers, new vehicles, pedestrian walkway improvements on some campuses and other measures. Clayton County has set aside money to put two officers in its high schools instead of one, have metal detectors in all of its middle and high schools and will now require volunteers to wear ID badges inside their schools.

It’s all part of an effort to ease fears about school violence in the wake of devastating school shootings such as Sandy Hook and near misses such as the 2013 case where a heavily armed man entered a DeKalb County school.

“Gradually, as safety became an issue throughout the country, we needed to be proactive and reactive,” said Taylor, Gwinnett’s executive director of academic support.

In 2006, Gwinnett had 23 school resource officers. It now has 41.

Taylor hopes the additional officers will deter crime, if not his fears. Gwinnett is Georgia’s largest district and has about 40,000 middle school students. The cost of adding those officers, including salaries and benefits, equipment and vehicles was $2.7 million: Eighteen officers were covered in last year’s budget at $1,792,363, and nine more, not yet hired, are in the current budget, $889,922.

Parents like Karen Lerew, a PTSA co-president at Bay Creek Middle School in Gwinnett, says she’s not sure the officers make the environment safer, but it feels that way.

“I do have a good feeling about them being here,” she said. “You never know what’s out there and what’s going to happen and what’s going to try and come in.”

Gwinnett and Cobb are the latest of several local school districts to have officers in all middle schools. Last year, Atlanta Public Schools moved to put officers in all of the district’s middle schools. It will have 18 of its 73 officers in those schools. DeKalb has 22 officers for all of its middle schools. In all, DeKalb has 68 school resource officers. Fulton County has 19 officers in its middle schools.

Cobb district spokesman Jay Dillon said this is the first year it was financially able to have officers in all of its middle schools. The officers will primarily work from the middle schools and will also patrol nearby elementaries. Cobb has beefed up its force to 53 officers, recently hiring 10 and planning to hire four more, Dillon said.

Homicides in U.S. schools declined nationwide from 47 in 1992-93 to 25 in 2010-11, according to federal education statistics. While violent crime has declined during that time span, it rose between the 2009-10 school year and the 2011-12 school year, the last years such data was available.

Incidents in Atlanta schools were slightly up during the 2013-14 school year compared to the prior school year, said Marquenta Sands, the district’s director of security. Sands attributed the increase to more officers being on Atlanta campuses full time. Sands believes the officers are gaining trust from some students about what’s going on inside those schools.

“They’re there every day. They know the students,” Sands said. “We saw really positive results from the officers working with the students.”

Gwinnett officers handled just over 2,000 incidents in their schools between July 2013 and June 2014, according to a report the district gave The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The most frequent offenses were marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft and felony weapon possession. In Cobb, officers handled nearly 1,300 offenses and made 436 arrests between August 2013 and late April 2014. The most frequent offenses in Cobb were larceny/theft and assault.

Building trust with teenagers can be as tough as physically making an arrest, Gwinnett’s Taylor said. He noted some officers have worked to improve relationships with students by being involved in extracurricular activities. One officer is the assistant soccer coach at Mountain View High School.

Angela Singleton, whose son will be a seventh-grader at Gwinnett’s Moore Middle School, said the increased security makes her feel better about his safety.

“It’s a good thing. The more the better, with all of the things happening in schools,” she said. “As long as (students) don’t feel like they’re in prison, it’s an extra measure of security.”

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Staff writer Emily Farlow contributed to this article.

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