Students are home, but school police remain on duty during pandemic

Gwinnett County Schools Police Officer Trakida Maldonado is assigned to Twin Rivers Middle School in Buford. Since the March order from Gov. Brian Kemp that students attend class at home, her duties have changed significantly. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Gwinnett County Schools Police Officer Trakida Maldonado is assigned to Twin Rivers Middle School in Buford. Since the March order from Gov. Brian Kemp that students attend class at home, her duties have changed significantly. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

When Atlanta area schools shut down in March due to the coronavirus, the role of police officers serving them changed dramatically. Now, as districts are weighing budgets, many say now is not the time to cut officers.

“Although our duties have changed with digital learning days, everyone stays busy,” Gwinnett County Schools Police Chief Wayne Rikard said before online classes ended in late May. “Right now, property protection is a priority.”

The majority of school districts in Georgia have partnerships with county or municipal law enforcement to provide officers to patrol schools and help with school traffic. But the six largest school systems employ their own police forces — nearly 500 police officers.

In Gwinnett County, their pay ranges from roughly $47,000 to $88,000, depending on experience and grade.

Last year, Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that provided more than $69.4 million to enhance existing security measures and start new programs at schools across the state — about $30,000 apiece to public schools, charter schools, state schools and Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support facilities.

With an area that runs from Palmetto to Johns Creek, Fulton County has one of the largest jurisdictions and third largest school police force in the state with 76 officers. Although districts are waiting for the state legislature to confirm their amount of funding, the head of safety said he doesn’t anticipate any staff cuts.

“Of course, we’re tasked with being good stewards of public funds, but the school police officers have proven over and above that they are essential,” said Shannon Flounnory, executive director of Safety and Security for Fulton County Public Schools.

Police presence in the nation’s schools has grown over the years to combat school violence, including mass shootings.

Now that area schools are out for summer, districts have fewer officers. Many officers are on the same schedule as teachers, with summers off. About a quarter continue to work in schools that offer summer programs and all properties continue to be patrolled daily.

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Trakida Maldonado works as police officer with Gwinnett County at Twin Rivers Middle School in Buford and Burnette Elementary School in Suwanee. Before the pandemic, she spent days dealing with security issues at schools, doing traffic duty as well as mentoring students.

But when students were sent home because of the coronavirus, her job changed in ways she couldn’t have predicted.

“There really is no such thing as a typical day, now,” said Maldonado, who is also a board certified counselor, with experience in crisis intervention for those with mental health issues.

Beyond her duties of patrolling school grounds, she helped school staff distribute lunches, laptops and WiFi hot spots to students when school was in session. But she was also tapped to help with crowd control out at testing sites for COVID-19.

“The first few weeks of shelter-in-place, I did a lot of welfare calls to check up on students who weren’t getting online,” she said. “Once I stopped by, there usually wasn’t an issue any more.”

There haven’t been any instances of school vandalism or break-ins in Gwinnett schools since the March stay-at-home orders, the schools police chief said.

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Clayton County hasn’t been as fortunate.

“There have been incidents of vandalism, burglary and illegal dumping,” said Chief Thomas Trawick, head of district safety and security. “We also assist the county and the various municipalities.”

About a month ago, Trawick’s officers helped Clayton County police locate a runaway.

“That’s not typically what we do,” said Trawick. “But our officers have a rapport with the students and the teachers even now during distance learning. They were able to find out where the student was and bring them home in less than 24 hours.”

With the specifics of the 2020-2021 school year still being determined, Marlyn Tillman, co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, also known as Gwinnett SToPP, questions the need for so many resources going toward school police officers. Similar comments have been brought up by attendees of online school board candidate forums.

“If you look at the core mission, schools are supposed to focus on teaching and learning,” she said. “Policing students isn’t part of that. There are county and municipal police officers who can take care of ‘real crime.’ Schools don’t need the expense of paying police to break up fights.”

Tillman pointed out that expenses for a school-funded police force are more than salary and benefits.

“You’re paying for the vehicle, on-going training, weaponry, etc.,” she said. “That’s money that can go toward purchasing laptops for kids who don’t have them at home or increasing the capacity and reliability of digital platforms.”

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While that may seem like a economical solution to some, it will only be a small savings, according Stephen Owens, a senior analyst at Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. For example, Gwinnett County Schools had a $2.3 billion budget last year. A 14% cut, as Gov. Brian Kemp has told state-funded entities to expect, would be a reduction of $322 million.

Owens cautioned against seeing personnel cuts as an answer to budget concerns.

“They are real people we are talking about. They are neighbors and friends who’ve dedicated themselves to public service. Eliminating someone’s job shouldn’t be done lightly,” he said. “There may be ways of raising state revenue and keeping essential services.”

Another factor in the upcoming budgets is an increase or addition in things that weren’t necessary in the past.

“If schools have to be disinfected more often, add partitions in classrooms and change school lunches to individual-packaged meals, there will be added costs,” said Owens.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution shadowed Maldonado recently when students came back to Twin Rivers to retrieve belongings left behind and to return textbooks and other school materials. Several teachers volunteered to help sort through the jackets and notebooks bundling them into large paper bags with the names of student affixed to each one.

Maldonado helped oversee that process and was on hand to direct parents to stay in their cars for the pickup and drop-off.

“I’m kind of a social distance officer right now,” she said. “I’ve found that with so much conflicting information, some people don’t understand the seriousness of what’s going on.”