- New campus security force will include nine officers, will have arrest powers
When local resident Shemetrice Matthews came before the Polk County Board of Education during their June meeting, she had nothing but praise for how the district is handling security.
She’s glad to see new locks being installed on doors, and extra security measures being taken on campuses around the county. Then last week before the meeting, she saw something that brought her joy.
“I had to pull over at Cedartown High School to admire the new Polk School District police cars,” she said.
Her praise also extended to new officers who were happy to give her a minute to admire a new addition to the district, that was given a final stamp of approval by board members: campus police.
“I would like to personally thank this board for the steps making and continue to make for safety and security of our children,” Matthews said.
Her remarks echoed those made before Superintendent Laurie Atkins asked the board to approve a resolution establishing the Polk School District Police Department in wanting nothing more than to ensure that students are kept safe throughout the day on campuses, and that officers are specifically assigned to carry out only that responsibility.
It started earlier in the year as a committee on school security, and expanded into a full-blown police department in the past months as additional school resource officers are being hired on, and if needed given additional training to ensure they remain mandated by the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
The school resource officers at middle and high schools already employed by the Cedartown and Rockmart Police Departments will remain in place, Atkins said.
“We love relationships we have with Cedartown and Rockmart, and we want that to remain in place,” Atkins said.
The goal instead is to have more officers acting in security roles at the elementary schools and outside of campuses at sporting events and in parking lots.
“We’re fortunate enough to have one in every school,” Assistant Superintendent Greg Teems said. “When it is all said and done we’ll have 13 police officers – including the two from Cedartown and Rockmart – 9 employed by the Polk School District, that are protecting all of our schools.”
As of the end of the year, school resource officers at the high school and middle schools were responsible for covering issues that came up involving security or issues above regular discipline problems at the elementary schools. Now they’ll get to stay where they are most needed, on the campuses they’re assigned to cover.
New officers will fall under Teems’ function as head of operations for the school district.
“A big point to make that even prior to the Parkland shooting, we were looking at our security issues and what we needed to do,” Teems said.
“A lot of schools are just now looking into what we’re doing, and heard so many people out there say that one officer covers three schools usually in their areas.”
The effort to move toward providing campus police officers in the K-12 environment grew in earnest following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Some have offered up suggestions of arming teachers, others want more physical security to make it harder for a potential active shooter to have more difficulty getting to students and teachers in the classroom.
In the months following, State School Superintendent Richard Woods instead has encouraged district across Georgia to instead consider allowing police to setup precincts within schools, or to hire officers directly and create their own police force.
Atkins said hiring officers and creating a force is a better solution than adding more work onto already overworked police officers locally by asking for the creation of precincts within a school.
“We want to make sure that we have our own people with their only responsibility being on those campuses, and focus on that,” she said.
Already many of those officers have been hired, and vehicles are already in service with the district’s vehicle fleet.
So how is the school district paying for this increase in security?
Previously, PSD agreed during previous administrations in charge at the central office to a lease agreement with Apple for the use of iPads. Now that lease agreement has finished up, and with a switch to a blended use of iPads still in operation and new Chromebooks within the classroom, it frees up funds previously used to pay for technology.
Atkins said additionally, hiring officers and supplying them with equipment for security is still less than what PSD was paying out to Apple annually, with a price tag of more than $400,000 for the tablets.
PSD’s police force is expected to cost just over $300,000 in its inaugural year, and decrease slightly in the years to come since they won’t be forced to immediately supply new equipment.
Both Atkins and Teems also pointed out the district is taking additional steps to ensure campus security, from putting up more fencing and new cameras, to installing new locks on classroom doors.
Changes are also being made to campus entryways, forcing visitors to report only to the front office and keeping them away getting into the rest of a school building without having to report first to officials.
One thing will remain the same no matter which officer is making an arrest for the new police department: if someone is taken into custody on charges stemming from an incident within 500 feet of the school, the cities or the county will still get any fine money derived from follow-up court proceedings if any are put in place.
“We’re not in this looking to make any money,” Atkins said. “We’re trying to look at the total picture of what we can do to address all areas of safety.”