There’s a new kind of police officer working in Atlanta public schools, with a different way of looking at things.
No, not a robot that uses artificial intelligence to solve problems: you still have to travel to Dubai to find one of those on routine patrol. Rather, these officers emphasize a very human outlook and approach to school policing.
And it seems to be working well.
For 12 years, Marquenta Hall, executive director of Safety and Security for Atlanta Public Schools, kept compiling data on rising crime trends and trying new approaches. All the while, she continued to pitch the idea that the district needed its own police force with officers who were equally adept at providing law enforcement and counseling as well as teaching. The idea was to better integrate them into the school setting, thus creating a community policing model that would allow officers to assist the rest of the staff in transforming the school climate. In 2016, the district finally received permission from the school board to stand up its own police department.
In seven months.
“It did take a bit of work,” Hall says. “We posted openings on a lot of different websites, and we held a couple of information sessions. We hired a chief and commanders and started interviewing, and when the school year (2016-2017) started, we were ready to go.”
The 70 officers who were “ready to go” represent, in Hall’s view, a new kind of officer: “You must be an officer who loves children. That’s No. 1. Then you truly must want to work in schools. You have to believe in the triad model, and because the district has adopted Restorative Practices and Social & Emotional Learning, you have to be trained in and buy into those concepts.”
Prior to starting the Atlanta Public Schools Police Department, the district had a contractual relationship with the Atlanta Police Department, but those officers worked in schools only part-time, and because different officers fulfilled the duties at different times, there were no opportunities for them to build relationships with students. This tended to result in a climate that was more confrontational than the school system wanted, Hall says.
“We wanted to start from scratch with officers who wanted to work with students in a respectful, meaningful way,” she says. “We knew in order to do that, we had to place an emphasis on hiring and selecting the right officers with the right mindset, and then we had to give them the training and ‘tools in their heads’ they needed to be successful.”
Rather than part-time officers whose focus is elsewhere, the new department assigns one officer to each high school and middle school, and there is a group that serves the elementary schools, with all officers having a specific school that they visit at least once a week. The Atlanta Public Schools officers serve as members of the leadership team, going to trainings along with counselors, social workers, administrators and teachers: “It’s a given that the officer is sworn law enforcement and they’re certified to carry out law enforcement duties. That’s part of their makeup, but it’s not their sole focus. We also want them to focus on becoming part of the school and building strong relationships with students and staff, to play a role in stopping problems before they start and escalate.”
With the department now in its second year of operation, the program’s success can be measured in the high officer retention rate and the number of complaints received about how officers have carried out their duties: one.
“Officers are not just assigned to a specific school, they’re really assigned to that school’s community. We had a student who had surgery and spent some time in the hospital, and because his mother couldn’t stay with him at night as she had to care for her other children, our officer worked all day at school and then spent the night at the hospital so the child had someone with him. Our officers are showing our students and our communities that they’re not just there to respond to calls, they’re looking for ways to make a long-term difference,” Hall says.
Standing up the Atlanta Public Schools Police Department is just one part of Atlanta Public Schools’ efforts at changing and improving the school climate and culture. In 2015, the district, along with partners WestEd and the University of Georgia, received a $7.5 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI) to develop and implement a holistic approach to creating safe and supportive learning environments. And the efforts of the police department will make a significant contribution to the success of that project.
"This grant has allowed us to put ideas in place, and one of those ideas is a new kind of officer who wants to mentor, counsel and teach and inspire kids. We want sworn officers with an added educational component. Our officers are dedicated to a community. They become part of the community,” Dr. Maria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent, said in a keynote address to the CSSI conference in May 2017.
“Everyone keeps saying, ‘Why did it take so long to do this?’ ” Hall says. “It’s the best move the district could have ever made. Our arrests are down, our truancy rates are down and our officers are out in the community making a great impact. They work traffic, they get buses in and out, they spend time in the neighborhood. They work with the students who don’t always make the best decisions and the ones that get in trouble to make help them get back on the right track. The principals love them and the response has been overwhelming positive.”
To learn more about the community policing approach that Atlanta Public Schools has used in standing up its own police department, contact Dr. Marquenta S. Hall at (404) 802-2007.