After emphatic objections from two members, the Bulloch County Board of Education by a 5-2 vote last week approved an agreement with the Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Noel Brown to continue providing deputies as school resource officers.
District 4 school board member April Newkirk wanted to add language cautioning the officers against "using the schools as a venue for questioning and searching students" about alleged law violations unrelated to school.
"I do want to say, right off the bat, that I do support SROs in our schools, with limitations, and this is not about me; this is about, again, protection, and making sure that we do things right," Newkirk told fellow board members.
A paragraph in the approved 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."
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson reported in July that legal counsel advised him that the school system could not require the officers to check with administrators before taking law enforcement actions. But last week, Newkirk and District 8 member Maurice Hill both said they had wanted to hear directly from attorneys.
The Aug. 22 approval vote came after action on the intergovernmental agreement was tabled July 25 on a motion from Hill. Appearing as "new business" on the earlier agenda, the proposal would ordinarily have gone to a second meeting anyway, but Chairman Mike Sparks suggested prompt action was in order and cast the only vote against tabling it.
With the agreement listed last week as "old business for approval," discussion resumed after a motion from District 5 member Glennera Martin, seconded by District 3 member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., to approve the agreement as presented.
"My concerns are the same," Newkirk said. "I'm disappointed that we still have not had an opportunity to talk to our attorneys when it was asked that they attend. I'm upset, or disappointed, that we weren't able to actually talk to the county."
Wilson said that he believed he had fulfilled his executive function in seeking answers to the board's questions from legal counsel and relaying these to the board. He had consulted the school system's usual law firm, Edenfield, Cox & Bruce, and has also spoken to someone with the District Attorney's Office.
But Newkirk said that "multiple counties within the state" have school resource officer contracts that include the language like that she was proposing.
"And many of those (school systems) are represented by the same law firm that represents … both the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association," Newkirk said.
This was a reference to Harben, Hartley & Hawkins, a Gainesville firm specializing in public-school law. Newkirk said she wanted to ask the local attorneys what they are aware of that the other school systems don't know.
"This all centers upon empowering our schools and our administrators to protect the children in their buildings, and I'm afraid that this contract really does not do that in the way that I think it should, in the way that we could," Newkirk said. "I believe that if there is an event that happens off campus, SROs should not have access to our children for questioning just because they are easy targets in the schools."
Newkirk again referred to an incident in which one of her children was questioned by a school resource officer about an off-campus matter. This occurred without the student's parents or the school's administrators being notified first, she said.
"Last fall, and this incident occurred after school hours, not on school property, a parent called an SRO officer and asked them to handle the incident," Newkirk said last week. "The SRO entered the school, not as an SRO because he was not on school business. He took my child and another child out of class, he questioned them, made one of them cry and then threatened to haul them out of school in silver bracelets — not a phrase that I have ever used with my children."
Newkirk had emailed wording that she wanted to add to the agreement to other board members in July.
"SRO and other law enforcement authorities are discouraged from using the schools as a venue for questioning and searching students for alleged violations of state or federal laws that are not related to the schools," was one of the passages.
A number of Georgia school systems, including the Effingham County Schools, do have statements like this in board policies.
Another passage Newkirk suggested would state that an SRO or other law enforcement officer must make sure a student is informed of his or her rights prior to questioning.
Additionally, she said she wanted to consult attorneys about whether language should be added about compliance with the Family Educational Law and Privacy Act, the federal law commonly called FERPA.
"The request for rewording is not absurd," Newkirk said. "I don't believe that it is petty. It's about the protection of the children in the event that an officer goes rogue, as one did with my child. We are entrusted in his care, and I believe that it is imperative that we get this contract right."
No attorneys present
Noting that he had made the previous motion to table, Hill said he had requested that the attorneys be brought in to talk to the board. However, when Wilson had asked about Hill's motion during the July 25 meeting, Hill did not connect it directly to his suggestion that the board meet directly with attorneys and the sheriff.
"There are some questions that we — well I can say myself — would like to have open dialogue with our legal counsel," Hill said Aug. 22. "If that's too much or if I'm out of order by asking, please tell me, Mr. Chairman, because I've sat on this board for about 16 years and I've always been reminded that legal counsel is there to support the Board of Education."
Wilson said he deferred to the chairman, Sparks, for whether to bring attorneys to talk to the board.
Noting that Newkirk was speaking from personal experience, Tedders asked how prevalent she thought such occurrences are, whether SROs were "constantly overstepping their boundaries." She said she had no definitive answer.
"Even if the language were exactly perfect, the way we want it to be … people make mistakes," Tedders said. "I don't know who this officer was, but people make mistakes, so just because it is written in the contract is not going to serve the problem. ... That doesn't change your experience, and I respect that."
He called approving the contract "a giant step in the right direction," and he and Martin said the board could change the agreement later if needed.
Late in the discussion, Sparks, a retired educator, noted that his father was a career law enforcement officer and that his son is a certified officer now.
"When I hear somebody say that law enforcement is 'going rogue,' that is a pretty strong term," Sparks said. "When I hear of somebody going rogue, I think of something really, really bad, and I had to get that off my chest, because I have the utmost respect for law enforcement and don't think that we have rogue law enforcement officers that are SROs."
District 1 member Cheri Wagner was absent, so seven members voted.
Wilson said he hopes to obtain a similar agreement from the Statesboro Police Department, which supplies two school resource officers for Statesboro High School. The Sheriff's Office supplies six to schools across the county.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.