Late one Friday this past September, our Atlanta Public Schools community was shaken by a senseless shooting that took place outside of Grady Stadium during one of our football games.
Two months later, video footage of a violent fight at one of our high schools headlined the evening news.
Far too often, my phone buzzes with another sobering report of an incident or altercation at or near one of our campuses.
These events and others underscore the need for action. And they underscore the need for all of us to help transform the culture inside (and outside) of APS and foster an environment where our students, families, and staff feel safe, welcomed, and respected in our schools and at school events.
The culture and cycles of violence in our schools and communities must end. I believe that we do this through education – taking effective action to change outcomes in the lives of our students and families – including rethinking how we provide safety and security supports in APS once and for all.
For this reason, last spring, APS sought partners to pursue funding that focuses on improving school safety and policing.
Through these partnerships we will be able to develop a multi-pronged approach to help students redirect their behavior through Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), increase student participation in finding solutions to behavioral issues through the establishment of Restorative Justice in schools, fund programs to strengthen emergency preparedness, and adopt new safety control technologies.
We also plan to launch an in-house safety and security department that supports our vision of developing school environments where students feel safe to learn, caring adults support students, and our children become productive citizens in their communities.
For a little background, APS has been contracting with the Atlanta Police Department for officers at our school sites and other facilities since 2004. Under our current agreement — which runs through June 30, 2016 — APS spends roughly $5.7 million each year for those contracted services.
We are grateful to the Atlanta Police Department for their services over the last 11 years. There are many beloved officers working with us right now in APS. Just this past Saturday, I had the chance to hang out with Officer Antwan Denson during the Hoops For A Cause event and saw just how much he cares about our kids.
We were appreciative this fall when Atlanta Police Chief Turner supported our efforts to win the NIJ grant with a letter of recommendation. In addition to strengthening safety and security in APS, creating an in-house department will also allow APD to focus on keeping Atlanta safe without having to pull officers from our schools or extracurricular events to handle emergencies or large events around the city, which happen often in a metropolitan city like Atlanta.
Our department will include up to 60 sworn, armed officers who will have the same authority as the contracted police officers we currently have. There will also be a variety of support positions, including the four that the Board of Education voted Monday to create: Executive Director of Safety and Security, Chief of Police, Security Operations Director, and an Emergency Management Compliance Manager. We have already started a nationwide search to fill these positions.
As full-time APS employees, these officers and support staff will be full-fledged participants in our efforts to build a child-centered culture and support our students academically and emotionally. They will take part in the same professional development and team-building work as our teachers and other staff— especially with respect to whole-child development, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), PBIS, and conflict resolution. Having our own sworn officers has many benefits for the district including increased flexibility to create a framework that reflects the needs of the district and individual school communities.
This model is hardly a new one for school systems across metro Atlanta. In fact, Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett school systems all operate in-house police departments— some stretching back decades.
The Board and I are deeply committed to the belief that our children must have a quality education that provides real choice and opportunity in their lives. That starts with our students feeling safe and welcome in our schools, surrounded by adults who love and care for them and are trained to diffuse situations before they escalate.
Safety always comes first. We believe this decision will enhance safety as well as support our mission, “With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.”
We’ve heard from some community members who have more questions about the role of Atlanta Police. I want to be clear that we will continue to work with Atlanta Police for emergency situations and to help us to design this new model. We need them to continue to be a critical partner to ensure the safety of our schools and communities. I believe that by having in-house sworn police officers in our district, we will expand and improve the safety, growth and development of our students.