Wake schools unlikely to form own police force

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 27, 2013 

  • High cost of more counselors

    It could cost $25 million a year to hire enough counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists to bring the Wake County school system to recommended national school staffing ratios.

    The school district safety task force said in its final report that the extra personnel “is necessary for both the prevention of emergency events and recovery from such events.” Several of the other 14 recommendations from the task force also would result in extra costs for the school district.

    “We’re not going to blow them off,” said school board Chairman Keith Sutton. “We’re going to give them all due diligence.”

    School board member Jim Martin has suggested bringing Wake’s staffing ratios up to at least national averages. He said it makes more sense to hire professionals to prevent emergencies than to form a separate police force to respond to them.

    “There’s no question that prevention is more successful than intervention,” he said.

The Wake County school system may have more guidance counselors, social workers and nurses next year – but the district appears unlikely to have its own police force.

School leaders say they’re not pursuing the suggestion from Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison to become only the third school district in North Carolina to have its own police force. Instead, school leaders say they’re focusing on other ways to improve school safety, including hiring more counselors to prevent incidents from happening.

“Staff did not agree with following that recommendation at this time,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton said recently of the police force. “It did receive consideration.”

Harrison said he still believes that safety would improve if the school system is in charge of law enforcement instead of continuing the current system of different agencies providing officers.

“I realize it will take a lot of research,” he said. “But in the long run if you wind up with safer schools, this is the way to go.”

The role of police in schools has received far more attention nationally since last December’s massacre at a Connecticut elementary school in which a gunman killed 20 children and six school employees. The reminders of school violence continued last week with the on-campus killings of teachers in Nevada and Massachusetts, apparently both committed by students.

After the Connecticut shooting, Sutton created a school safety task force headed by Harrison and retired Raleigh Police Captain Al White. The group made its recommendations to the school board in June. But Harrison also proposed his own recommendation for the school police force.

Harrison said he became convinced of the benefits of having a school police force while working on the task force. He said seeing how inconsistent security standards were at individual schools, such as the number and types of surveillance cameras used, convinced him that having one agency in charge would make the most sense.

“This is something that needs to be looked at,” Harrison said, “We’re the biggest (school system) in the state. To be consistent, there should be one person in charge.”

Harrison’s suggestion put him at odds with some task force members who accused him of hijacking the final report.

“It’s encouraging that his idea got no momentum with the school board,” said Jason Langberg, a task force member and an attorney with Advocates for Children’s Services, which represents students facing suspensions and criminal charges.

Moore, Mecklenburg have own forces

Task force members said they learned that Moore County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg are the only two school districts in North Carolina that have their own police forces. The sworn officers in those agencies carry firearms and have full arrest powers.

Both school systems also highlight different ways Wake County schools could operate its own police force.

Second only in enrollment in the state to Wake, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system has 18 sworn officers.

Six patrol officers are assigned to cover elementary schools. Six patrol officers are each assigned to a specific school as a school resource officer – five of them in schools that have kindergarten through grade eight and one at a high school.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Department also oversees 110 private security guards to help keep watch of the district’s 159 schools. The police department has a $12 million budget.

But the district’s police department doesn’t oversee the 57 school resource officers from the different law enforcement agencies.

What Harrison envisions for Wake is the system used in Moore County, where all the school resource officers are overseen by the school district’s police department. There are 64 school resource officers assigned to Wake middle schools and high schools.

The Moore County Schools Police has 13 officers to patrol the district’s 23 schools with a budget of around $500,000. Moore County Schools Police Chief Sammy McNeill said having the district hire the school resource officers means it’s more likely to get the right people, which leads to a better relationship with the community and potentially more tips about problems.

McNeill, who spoke to the Wake task force, said starting your own school police force will take time to implement.

“It works in Moore County,” he said. “I won’t say it will work for everybody. But if you get it right, it’s a great thing.”

Disagreement on board

Wake school administrators agreed to review Harrison’s proposal along with the official recommendations from the task force. But the police force wasn’t mentioned in staff’s response to the task force report that was presented to the school board this month.

Sutton, the school board chairman, said staff found problems with the police idea such as cost, logistics and the amount of time for implementaton. He said staff opted to only focus on the official task force recommendations.

School board member Jim Martin, who has questioned the district’s ability to properly staff its own police force, said it makes more sense to consider what the task force recommended.

“I don’t think you’re going to gain any significant advantage from it and it costs more,” he said. “It’s not fiscally responsible.”

But school board member John Tedesco said the district should be simultaneously looking at Harrison’s recommendation and the recommendations from the task force. While saying he’s not necessarily backing the idea, Tedesco said Wake should at least do more research to find out how much it would cost to have a police force.

“We’re the 16th largest (school system) in the country,” he said. “You have a higher probability of an incident occurring on our campuses on any given day. I don’t know why we’d stop looking at every possible way to make our schools safe.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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