When Gwinnett County Public Schools open to students for the 2019-20 school year, the school system’s 96 School Resource Officers begin their watch.

Gwinnett County School Police stations two officers in each high school, one per middle school and some are stationed at elementary schools. These officers have a minimum of five years of experience in law enforcement. SROs must also have a two or four-year degree and no investigative files on their records.

This presence is not new at high school and middle schools, but Gwinnett County Schools Police Chief Wayne Rikard said the increased officer presence at elementary schools this year is part of a rotation of officers within clusters. 

"The thing about it is, we have some in elementary schools already," Rikard said. "The high school SROs, we’ll have them roped into the elementary schools. Just because they’re assigned to a high school, doesn’t mean they’re only showing up there."

The county reported 96 SROs this year, an increase from the 89 reported by the school police department in April. In the 2020 budget plan, the school system approved funding for six additional SROs to enhance school safety and security, though Rikard said there were seven additional SRO positions added since April.

The school system has funded additional SRO positions in four of its previous seven budgets — 2014, 2015, 2019 and now 2020.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility, Rikard outlined in an April presentation to the Board of Education. As the eyes and ears of the school, students can be the first reporters of a potential threat to an officer.

"If students really want a safe and secure environment, they have to let us know if they hear about things inside the school," Rikard said. "It’s those students that have to come and tell us. They take a vital part in our safety and security." 

In an April 18 presentation to the Gwinnett County Board of Education, Rikard provided an overview of an SRO’s explicit levels of force. The officer’s presence alone is seen as an element of force or at least actively discourages lawbreaking and promotes safety. The second tier of force is a verbal address, followed by the first levels of physical contact.

Empty-hand contact and closed-hand contact is left up to the officer's discretion, Rikard said.

"A lot of times it has to do with the safety of other students or faculty," he said. "What we’re trying to do is deescalate it before the point we’re putting out hands on students." 

If delinquents are unable to be subdued with hands, SROs have tools at their disposal. In escalating order, batons, tasers and handguns are permitted for use based on the officer's discretion in a violent situation.

"We give them all of those tools, and the officer decides based on the situation which tool (they) need to calm the situation down," Rikard said. "We’ve had tasers for about 7 years and only had three activations."

Rikard and Captain Bill Wellmaker oversee four lieutenants that are in charge of north, south, west and east zones.

Gwinnett County School Police is an independent law enforcement entity — unaffiliated with county or city law enforcement — but assists local and state law enforcement agencies. The department’s primary focus is to serve students.

School police also see themselves as law enforcement educators, teaching parents, students and school staff with safety advice and how to stay within the law. Local law enforcement also look to provide mentorship, particularly at the elementary-grade level.

Gwinnett County School Police jurisdiction is not limited to school campuses, and includes school buses. Since officers are sworn in as deputies by the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, they have the ability to investigate crimes off of our campuses.

Visitor Management Systems are in place at every school and act as a doorbell for visitors to buzz in and be seen on camera before doors to the school are unlocked. Key staff members of each school are tasked with the details of Emergency Management Plans, which are approved by the Gwinnett County Office of Emergency Management. these plans guide staff and the school’s safety partners to a swift response in the event of a crisis. Reunification plans ensure that, in the event of an emergency, students can be evacuated to a safe place where they can reunite with their families.

Gwinnett County Schools Police has a 24-hour dispatch center that can be reached at 770-513-6715, and an anonymous tip line at 770-822-6513. The tip line is open 24 hours a day and is intended to report concerns occurring on the campuses of Gwinnett County Public Schools, not emergency situations.

A parent's or guardian's role in school safety is twofold, Rikard said. Police ask for potential threats on social media to be reporter, not shared, and daily preparation for school should also insure that no contraband items are smuggled in backpacks.

"We want them to know that, when they see threats, to stop forwarding and retweeting it," Rikard said. The best thing to do is to call in and not share things."

For the third year, SchoolMessenger will notify parents of school cancellations and emergencies via text messages, phone calls and emails. Parents are encouraged to verify the accuracy of their contact information at the beginning of the school year as this information is used by GCPS to send emergency notifications by phone, email, and text using SchoolMessenger. Schools also may send non-emergency information and attendance notifications by email.

Parents and guardians can subscribe by texting the word “SUBSCRIBE” to the number 67587.

Emergency messages from Gwinnett County Public Schools will come from the number 1-844-248-6644.

Taylor Denman is a reporter born and raised in Gwinnett County. He came back home to seize the rare opportunity of telling stories about the county in which he grew up.