Even when our students, teachers and staff go away on a short break – like our recent Winter Break – I cannot wait for them to return to the classroom and resume learning. Amid my eagerness to see them back in the classroom, I continue to work with our schools and our Office of Safety and Security to ensure that our classrooms and schools are safe places for our students to learn and grow.
Changing circumstances require us to always be vigilant, forward-thinking and proactive as safety remains one of Atlanta Public Schools’ top priorities.
We took our first giant step more than two years ago when we created the APS Police Department. Led by Chief Ron Applin, this department was designed in alignment with a national “triad” model where our school resource officers counsel, police and teach. Most importantly, these officers represent a new kind of police – trained specifically for the school environment with skills in social emotional learning, positive behavior supports and restorative justice.
But our schools, students and officers needed more tools, so APS has explored many options to improve security across the district so every child has a safe learning environment.
Sandy Hook Say Something Anonymous Reporting System
Earlier this school year, we introduced a new anonymous reporting system, the Sandy Hook Promise Say Something Anonymous Reporting System (SSARS). We introduced this tool to provide the opportunity for students and staff to send anonymous tips about life safety and non-life safety concerns happening in and around our schools.
Since implementation of SSARS began, we have been alerted to and addressed dozens of important safety tips, which we may not have otherwise received.
Avoid. Deny. Defend.
We are scheduled to provide training to students and staff in the coming weeks on Avoid. Deny. Defend. This is a nationally recognized program that shares strategies to be used should violence or even the threat of violence happen at our schools or offices.
The curriculum teaches three important steps:
- Avoid – If you become aware of a threat in the building, immediately look to move away from that threat.
- Deny – For this phase, you would close and secure your door, turn off the lights, and barricade the door to prevent anyone from entering.
- Defend – Once you have denied access and are unable to evacuate, prepare to defend yourself.
This method, developed by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University, has been taught to thousands of school districts and companies around the nation since its release in 2013. Our goal is to build confidence in our students and staff and emphasize that what you do matters in an emergency situation.
We are taking this program directly to our schools. Trained law enforcement officers, supported by our own officers, will show our students and staff specific steps to take when their schools face real or perceived danger. We believe that this training is essential should any of our schools face such inconceivable perils.
Body-Worn Camera Initiative
Finally, APS plans to start adding body-worn cameras to the uniforms of our school resource officers within the next few weeks as part of the Metro Atlanta Body-Worn Camera Initiative. This initiative is funded through a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Last year, we held a series of community meetings to get feedback on the standard operating procedures for adding these cameras to our officers’ uniforms. The Atlanta Board of Education during its March 4 meeting plans to vote on policy revisions that ensure proper use of the cameras, especially with respect to privacy rights of students and staff.
Our Office of Safety and Security recently purchased the cameras. More than 80 APS police officers and employees have begun training to use these cameras. We expect our officers to begin wearing these cameras sometime in March.
We support the use of these cameras because we believe they will enchance school safety, promote accountability, create more transparency, increase public trust and boost the efficiency and technical capability of our investigations.
But, I must stress again that these additional strategies and the body-worn cameras are a part of a multi-layered approach to keeping our schools safe. Our officers’ primary roles are to serve as school resource officers, whose most important tools are not on their uniforms or on their belts, but in their hearts and minds. Social emotional learning, positive behavior supports and restorative practices are the most critical instruments for our officers.
School safety is everyone’s business, and we take this seriously. Remember, we each have a role to play in ensuring that our schools continue to be safe and secure places for learning and growing.
Thank you for all that you do to partner with us in these efforts. Together, we are building a safer and more caring culture to ensure that our students graduate ready for college and career.