Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr. |
School Resource officer Mike Landrum speaks with Patrick McAnally, an Austin senior, as he goes about his duties at the school Friday. Decatur’s nationally recognized School Resource Officer program is facing personnel and funding challenges.
police face cuts
Decatur unit loses director, federal grant
By Chris Paschenko
The challenge for Decatur’s nationally renowned School Resource Officer program is daunting.
Gone is a federal grant that paid the salaries of five police officers, who spend each day interacting with students and staff in a school system that equals a fifth of the city’s population.
Leaving in January will be the program’s director, Sgt. Greg Cain, who carried the program to national acclaim, making it a model agency for other cities. Voters elected Cain as Morgan County’s probate judge in November.
Lost will be Cain’s supervisory roll. The City Council on Monday voted to fill the vacancy but not with an officer of rank, concluding his sergeant’s position would better serve the public by patrolling streets rather than classrooms.
Can Decatur afford to cut its resource officer program despite reports of drugs, gangs and violence here, while neighboring schools work to increase police presence?
Council members, police and school Superintendent Sam Houston say they want the program to prosper and grow, but Houston is contemplating reducing the number of officers to three after the council shifted part of the officers’ salaries to the schools’ budget. School system Finance Director Melanie Maples said last summer that five officers would cost the school system $219,000 for the 2007 fiscal year.
“We want the best for our kids,” Houston said. “It’s not about the school system or the council, as much as it is for the kids’ welfare. The focus needs to be on the kids and solving the problem.”
Houston said he would like to meet with the council and Police Department to discuss support for the program, but no meeting has been scheduled.
Meanwhile, a recent survey showed school killings were up slightly in the 2004-05 academic year compared with the previous year.
Although no school-related deaths have been reported in Alabama this year, National School Safety and Security Services reported 16 such deaths in the U.S. between the start of this school year and Oct. 31, including six shootings and one stabbing.
Cain, a 16-year veteran of the Police Department, was promoted to sergeant while in the resource officer unit. He said the key to preventing violence in schools is for officers to develop relationships with students and staff.
“If cuts are made to the program, it would be a tremendous restriction,” Cain said. “What we really need is an officer at each high school, one at each middle school, and two or three
assigned to the elementary schools. Then we need a supervisor for that unit on a day-to-day basis.”
Reducing the number of officers, Cain said, would make the unit less effective. He said officers receive information related to school safety from students and staff on a daily basis.
“A lot of success is based on building relationships with students,” Cain said. “The officers get information from students to prevent occurrences, such as ‘I’m hearing friends talking about this, and you need to be aware of this.’ Patrol officers can respond to a call, but what we’re looking at is prevention efforts, and that’s done by relationships.”
Resource officers are also given special investigative abilities by federal decree, Cain said.
“A lot of it has to do with talking to students, and search and seizure issues,” he said. “When police respond to a school, a patrolman is bound by probable cause. School Resource Officers, according to federal court decisions, are governed by the same rules and regulations as school administrators.”
Administrators can react to situations based on reasonable suspicion, Cain said.
“The reason federal courts have done that is for safety and security for schools,” he said. “The partnership between schools and the officers is unique, and therefore it allows them to do some things normal patrol officers cannot.”
Without city support
Houston declined to say when cuts to the program, in existence since 2002, would take place without support from the city.
“We need it immediately,” Houston said.
“I’m told how much money we have to apply to the program, and that equates to three officers.
“ I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope we can achieve some kind of partnership with the city and maintain the number of officers we have now. This is the type of system most schools enjoy.”
The city provides officers equipment and training and the portion of their salary when school isn’t in session.
Councilman Gary Hammon, who is the liaison to the Police Department, said he understands the school system’s budgetary woes.
‘Caught by surprise’
“I saw this year how they got bit when the state pulled funding after the budget year started,” Hammon said.
“I could see them getting caught by surprise this year ... Our job is not to tell them how to spend their money, but I know fundingwise the city provides more local support than all but four other municipalities in the state.”
Hammon said each year the school system benefits from increases in sales-tax revenue.
“In addition to the growth of the penny (dedicated to funding schools), they’ve got growth in other fundings, too,” Hammon said. “I guess what it boils down to is everybody’s got to do their job.”
Sgt. Greg Cain named national resource officer of the year in 2005.
Unit named in 2005 as a model agency for the country.
Austin High School recipient of state attorney general’s safe schools award four times.
Decatur High School received state award three consecutive years.
Oak Park Middle School received state award this year.
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