Some school cops don’t make the grade

Staff writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.

How we got the story

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters pored through hundreds of school resource officers’ personnel and investigative files provided by local school districts and the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. Reporters then interviewed several experts and administrators about local and national school security trends and hiring practices.

During Anthony Henderson’s 19-year-career as a police officer, records show he was involved in a raid that targeted the wrong home, allegedly lost a teenager who was under arrest for armed robbery, and accidentally shot a rottweiler’s owner in the leg. He was aiming for the dog.

After being fired from one police department and leaving another while under suspension, Henderson successfully applied for a job with Fulton County schools. In November he was disciplined for handcuffing together three Bear Creek Middle School students he suspected of stealing an iPhone and marching them down the hallway as their friends looked on.

Henderson’s story and dozens of similar ones came to light when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution probed the disciplinary records of officers hired to protect metro Atlanta’s students and teachers.

In the past five years, the AJC found, school administrators have hired at least 49 police officers who have been investigated or sanctioned by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST). Among their offenses: lying under oath, domestic violence and driving under the influence.

The AJC sought to interview all the officers named in this story. Some did not respond to repeated phone calls; others declined to speak to reporters.

The deadly massacre last year at a Connecticut elementary school has prompted widespread cries for tougher school security. This summer, Gwinnett’s school district will almost double its police force and Clayton’s will spend $2.6 million to create a police force of its own.

In the midst of the push for improved security, less scrutiny has fallen on the quality of the those hired to keep watch over students.

Some of the complaints the AJC culled from POST’s files arose before the officers were hired to work in schools; some occurred in the schools. While some of the officers in question have resigned or been fired by the school districts, 15 are still employed there.

Another 11 worked as school resource officers in Atlanta and Clayton County in 2012, which was the most recent data available. Those school districts do not have their own forces but employ officers from the Atlanta Police Department and the Clayton County Sheriff.

DeKalb schools had the highest incidence of officers investigated or sanctioned by POST: nearly one in five of the officers on the district’s payroll. Asked about the AJC’s findings, a DeKalb spokesman said the district would investigate.

“If that’s the case I think there are going to be some people on the board and in the administration who are going to want to look at those cases and look at them closely,” Jeff Dickerson said.

Gwinnett is the only major local district in which no officer has been investigated or sanctioned in the past five years. That’s no accident.

“Our background investigation is something we pride ourselves on doing,” said Gwinnett schools’ police chief Wayne Rikard. “We want to make sure we get an officer that has had no problems.”

Gwinnett currently employs 25 officers.

Elsewhere, at least six school resource officers were fired or forced to resign for infractions that occurred on school grounds.

In 2008, North Cobb High School resource officer David Kendle grabbed a 16-year-old by the throat, twice slammed his head against a brick wall, handcuffed him and then pulled his sagging pants off, according to records.

Before being hired by Cobb, Kendle was twice placed on probation by a judge for driving with a suspended or revoked license, according to records. He has since been fired.

Cobb school officials told the AJC they have stringent hiring standards.

“The Cobb County School District strives to hire mature and experienced police officers who meet the qualifications of the job description,” said Jay Dillon, a spokesman for the district.

Experts say schools should attract the best and brightest, not those with troubled records.

“Of all places, we don’t need people who have some type of problem around our kids, our most precious resource,” said Clayton County Chief Judge Steven Teske, who helped reform the way officers from the county’s police department patrolled schools.

To be effective, a school resource officer needs patience, experience and the ability to build trust, said those familiar with the job. An officer’s day is spent in give and take with students, often confiscating drugs, quelling disputes and breaking up fights.

But considerations other than the officer’s skills and temperament sometimes taint the hiring process, said J.Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney who has written about student’s interaction with the law. “There’s a hierarchy in law enforcement, and unfortunately the belief is that if you’re working with kids, then you put the officer there who is not cutting it on the street.”

Hiring practices and pay vary widely among districts.

Gwinnett requires its officers to have a Bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience and offers a salary of $69,697. Fulton requires three years of experience and pays $47,720 a year.

Sometimes, administrators don’t follow their own hiring practices, records suggest.

Atlanta Public Schools, which hires off-duty officers from Atlanta’s police force, requires applicants to have “no prior investigation within the last seven years involving sustained theft, use of force, excessive force or any other incident or behaviors considered unbecoming to an officer.”

But at least seven officers who have patrolled Atlanta schools have been investigated for infractions within the last seven years, records show.

“Student safety is our top priority,” said Stephen J. Alford, Atlanta Public Schools’ spokesman. “We look for highly qualified officers that meet our overall safety and security plan.”

POST can investigate officers for both professional and personal conduct. Discipline ranges from public reprimand to years of suspension or termination.

The agency put DeKalb school resource officer William Gosha on probation after a domestic incident on Christmas Day 2009. According to POST records, he choked a woman, hit her with a pot roast and threatened to kill her if she called the police. Gosha was acquitted by a jury of criminal charges.

Willie Patterson Jr., also an officer with DeKalb schools, had at least six run-ins with the law — including trespass, battery and simple assault — before he was fired in 1995 by DeKalb’s Police Department. POST has dismissed several parent complaints regarding physical altercations he had with students since the school district hired him in 2003.

DeKalb school resource officer Bobby Render was banned from the jail by the DeKalb Sheriff after he allegedly helped an Atlanta police officer get into the jail through a secure entrance. That officer was later charged with smuggling in a cell phone for her son, convicted of murder.

But among the POST files, Henderson’s case stands out. In 2002, when he was employed by the East Point police force, he was involved in a brawl with students and family members at a Tri-Cities High School basketball game. That incident resulted in a 30-day suspension and his eventual firing, according to his personnel record.

He then landed in the Union City Police Department. Records show that in 2005, while transporting a teenager under arrest for armed robbery, Henderson made a stop at a Quick Trip. The teen escaped while Henderson was filling up a fountain drink. He was later found at a friend’s home.

While under suspension for that incident, Henderson applied for and got a job with Fulton County schools.

“I want to be part of the Fulton County School System so that I can work in a position that will completely satisfy two of my greatest interest(s), protecting and serving the community and helping to positively change the lives of young people,” he wrote in his application.

Fulton County schools spokeswoman Susan Hale said Henderson, and all officers hired by Fulton County, met the requirements, meaning they did not have any open internal affairs or POST investigations.