LAWRENCEVILLE - For the second time this year, a grand jury has recommended Gwinnett County Public Schools hire 10 additional school resource officers.
This time, the grand jury suggested the school system use money in its reserve fund balance to hire the additional officers, a move district officials said would be financially unsound.
"As a district, we have a fiscal responsibility not to draw on the reserve fund balance for recurring costs like salaries," said Bobby Crowson, associate superintendent of academic support. "If we are able to fund these additional positions, it would need to be funded through the district's general fund."
GCPS Police Chief Wayne Rikard requested earlier this year to hire additional officers, but the appeal was not granted because the school system's budget would not allow for it. The district does, however, plan to add to its police force when it opens Archer and Mountain View high schools next year and Lanier High in 2010.
The grand jury noted the number of students per school resource officer is significantly higher here than in surrounding counties. The county school district, the largest in the state, has 20 officers, which amounts to one per nearly 8,000 students. The neighboring district in Cobb County has about 43 officers, or one per about 2,560 students.
"When initially implemented in 1994, the function of the SRO position was essentially proactive, developing rapport with students and educating students and staff," the presentment reads. "Unfortunately, over the years this role has become increasingly reactive, requiring SROs to be perceived as an extension of local law enforcement agencies.
"The grand jury recommends that Gwinnett County Schools make a minimum 3 year commitment to the SRO program in order to support a proactive relationship with students and staffs at all schools," the recommendation continues. "After such time, if this program does not have a quantifiable benefit to the school system, perhaps it would be time to re-evaluate the entire program."
Crowson said the officers continue to spend time on proactive measures, including staff training, updating school safety plans and working with other law enforcement agencies to ensure schools remain safe.
"While our officers do respond to a wide variety of situations, the number of cases handled in 2008 was actually lower than the number in 2007," Crowson said, adding "The school system has a firm commitment to providing safe, orderly teaching and learning environments. The SRO program is a piece of that commitment. Our Board of Education has not only supported this program for nearly two decades, but remains committed to it, as evidenced by the growth of the program as we have added new clusters."
Kevin Quinn, a regional director and public information officer for the National Association of School Resource Officers, said there is no national standard for the ratio of school resource officers to students.
"Funding is an issue. Sure, every school would love to have a resource officer, but you have to deal with what you have," Quinn said. "It sounds like they (Gwinnett County Public Schools) are doing they best they can. ... Without money, there's not a darn thing to do about it."
As long as officers are assigned to the same group of students and are building relationships with the children, the goal of the program is being met, Quinn said.
"The goal of the program is to have consistency with the officers," he said. "The kids are used to them, and they're used to the kids. ... They build that bond, build that rapport with them."
In Gwinnett County, one school resource officer is assigned to each of the 15 clusters and are housed at the high schools, allowing the officers to interact regularly with those students, Crowson said. In addition, the district has three zone commanders, two of which are housed at the Gwinnett InterVention Education (GIVE) Centers East and West.
Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the school system "always appreciate(s) individuals and groups who want us to continue having orderly and safe school campuses."
"The Board of Education and I consider this one of our highest priorities and work hard to ensure that our schools are safe and orderly places for our students, faculty and staff, and visitors," he said. "As always, the grand jury can be assured that their recommendations will receive the time and attention they deserve."