Education

Wake sheriff says school system should create its own police force

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison speaks at a 2013 Wake County school board meeting urging the school district to create its own police force. Harrison reiterated that request in a letter sent Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison speaks at a 2013 Wake County school board meeting urging the school district to create its own police force. Harrison reiterated that request in a letter sent Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. tlong@newsobserver.com

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison is calling for the school system to create its own police force following the recent controversy over a police officer slamming a Rolesville High School student to the floor.

In a letter sent Thursday to the school board and Wake County Board of Commissioners, Harrison says the existing “patchwork of a public safety system in our schools is set up for failure.” Harrison cites how the 12 local law enforcement agencies have different protocols and training standards that he says often may be in conflict with the goals and objectives set by the school system.

“It is imperative that we address this problem before it becomes a system failure that impacts a student, a teacher or a citizen of Wake County,” Harrison writes.

Two North Carolina school systems, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Moore County, operate their own police forces. Most districts rely on police officers provided by individual agencies.

Wake contracts with area law enforcement to provide more than 60 armed school resource officers who operate in high schools and middle schools. Wake also contracts with Allied Universal to provide unarmed private security officers.

Harrison’s letter comes after a nine-second video was posted on Twitter on Jan. 3 showing a Rolesville police officer lifting a student into the air and dropping her to the floor. Activists have cited the video in calling on school leaders to remove police officers from schools and replace them with more counselors.

In Harrison’s letter, the sheriff writes that the Rolesville incident caused him to want to share his thoughts on centralizing safety and security in the Wake County school system.

The letter comes as the school district’s agreement with local law enforcement agencies on school resource officers is set to expire in June. School leaders say they’re reviewing the agreement in light of the Rolesville High incident.

School and county leaders didn’t embrace Harrison’s request on Thursday.

Sig Hutchinson, Democratic chairman of the board of commissioners, said he was surprised Harrison sent the letter. He said commissioners would work with the school system and Harrison, a Republican, on the issue of school safety.

“Safety of our students is a complex issue,” Hutchinson said. “We need solutions that work for everybody.”

Superintendent Jim Merrill has no immediate comment, according to Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman. She said Merrill appreciates hearing from Harrison and that the sheriff has already made his preferences known on the issue.

Harrison made a similar request in 2013 that the school district create its own police force after he co-chaired a task force formed following the December 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn. School leaders didn’t act on that recommendation, citing issues such as cost and logistics.

“As elected leaders, we need to work together to provide a safe and secure environment for learning in our schools,” Harrison writes. “I understand the county’s concern about upfront costs associated with establishing a new police agency, but I believe in the long run it will be a good investment for our schools and our citizens.”

Harrison said a public safety department under the authority of the school system would provide a centralized command system. He said the new agency could also provide its officers with specialized training geared toward meeting the specific needs of schools, such as building positive relationships with students, educators and law enforcement officers.

Under the district’s agreement, officers are supposed to receive training in areas such as working with students with disabilities and special needs, cultural competency and nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline.

Harrison has had a rocky relationship with the Democratic majority on the school board. In September, Harrison threatened to pull his deputies from the schools unless the district developed a uniform policy on access to restrooms and locker rooms for transgender students.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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