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BOE debates resource officer agreement
At issue: Deputies acting independently of principals
BOE SRO debate
Bulloch County Board of Education member April Newkirk, left, describes her concern about the proposed school resource officer agreement while Superintendent Charles Wilson listens. (AL HACKLE/staff)

The Bulloch County Schools resume classes Thursday with five Sheriff's Office deputies assigned to schools as resource officers, but without Board of Education approval so far on a new agreement governing how the officers work in the schools.

With some deputies assigned to two neighboring schools, eight of the 15 schools will be served under this agreement. In addition, two Statesboro Police Department officers serve as school resource officers, or SROs, at Statesboro High School.

The proposed intergovernmental agreement presented last Thursday between the school system on one side and the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Noel Brown on the other would be unlike previous agreements that, when they were in writing at all, dealt mostly with funding.

"The intent of school resource officers, by definition, is not to be a police officer in the school that is, you know, being aggressive with students," Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson said to school board members.

He noted the role of the officers in providing classroom instruction through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education and Gang Resistance Education and Training, or DARE and GREAT, programs, which are specifically mentioned in the agreement.

"An SRO by nature and role is to establish relationships. …," Wilson continued. "But they are a law enforcement officer, and as you know our SROs report to, in this case, the sheriff's department."

Principals and cops

Wilson and his staff have now communicated clearly with principals, he said, to make sure they do not ask the officers to intervene in situations that involve the schools' code of conduct but are not law enforcement matters. 

But after school officials worked with the county government to come closer than ever before to an agreement defining the role of SROs in the schools, a question came up, Wilson said.

He described it as "concern about a law enforcement officer taking action without administrator involvement."

A paragraph in the proposed agreement states: "All school related activity must be coordinated by each SRO with the principal's office. When an SRO perceives that law enforcement action is required at a school, he/she shall take such action and then notify the principal of the actions taken as soon as reasonably possible thereafter."

However, Wilson said he does not think the school system can go further and require an officer to notify the principal or other administrators first, before taking a law enforcement action in regard to a student.  He said he had consulted the school system's legal counsel, the district attorney's office and others.

"Basically what that would mean is us trying to prevent a law enforcement officer from exercising their responsibilities and requirements under state law, and the sheriff's expectations as well," Wilson told the board.

'New business'

The intergovernmental agreement appeared on Thursday evening's BOE agenda under "new business." These are usually items that are introduced for action at a future meeting. But Chairman Mike Sparks expressed a desire to go ahead and approve the agreement.

"Since school's fixing to start next week, I would think we need to go ahead and approve this and have it in place," Sparks said. "I've gone over the document and I don't see anything in there that would cause us not to."

But District 4 board member April Newkirk indicated that the concern Wilson spoke of had been hers.

"There's no way in which we can make adjustments that would state, 'Barring illegal activity, the SRO still has to report to the administrator?'" she asked.

Wilson repeated that there is no reason for administrators to pull a resource officer into a school disciplinary matter that does not involve suspected illegal activity.

"But if it's a law enforcement matter that falls within the scope that  law enforcement believes they should take action on, we cannot prevent them from doing it," Wilson said.

When parents send their children to school, they entrust school officials to make decisions for them in the parents' absence, Newkirk said.

"And part of that is the guarantee that an SRO, or a school resource officer, is not going to pull a child without a parent's permission or without an administrator's permission, and when that occurs, that's a breach of trust on our part," she said.

During the discussion, she related that her son had been questioned by a resource officer about an off-campus matter without an administrator being notified first. Referring to "alleged bullying events not on campus," Newkirk said she had heard from other parents whose children were pulled from class and questioned without an administrator being informed.

"My own child was one of those children, and if a board member from a white, middle-class family, their child is going to be taken out and questioned by an SRO officer and frightened in a way that he felt threatened, then what's going to happen to another child?" Newkirk said. "That's my concern."

She also noted that several Georgia school systems and administrators have been sued over actions by SROs. In the instance involving her son, Newkirk said, she did not believe any malicious intent was involved.

Wilson and Dr. Deborah Mangum, student support services executive director, reported that handbooks and protocols have been revised and administrators given new training on the role of SROs.

Terms of agreement

The proposed agreement provides for an "SRO program coordinator," to supervise the resource officers and convey concerns to the sheriff. That coordinator is Sgt. Jimmy Billings, a Sheriff's Office division commander, and not the school safety director employed by the BOE.

Under the agreement, the school system will pay $43,688 for each deputy's service as an SRO through the coming school year, plus $25 an hour for any duties at any events outside school hours.

District 8 board member Maurice Hill made a motion to table a vote on the agreement. He suggested inviting Sheriff Brown and the school system's attorneys to talk to the board, but said his motion was simply to table the vote until the next meeting, Aug. 8. After District 5 member Glennera Martin seconded the motion to table, it passed 6-1, with Sparks casting the "no" vote.

Now that administrators have received relevant training, the decision on when to involve an officer in a student matter should be clear, District 1 board member Cheri Wagner suggested.

"If it's something that you would not phone the police to intervene in, we're not going to be bringing our SRO officer in, but if it were something that we would phone the police for, that's when we would bring our SRO officer in," Wagner said. "So, essentially the only thing that has changed, in my mind, is we've got the officers in there, which actually brings better protection to our schools."

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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