By Curt Yeomans
For months, the Clayton County School System has been negotiating a new school resource officer (SRO) contract with the county's police department, but meeting a demand for more officers in the schools will not be easy, according to the police chief.
Increasing the presence of law enforcement in the county's eight high schools and 14 middle schools has been one of the district's wishes for years, as the public continues to demand safer schools.
However, a continually growing school system means a continually growing number of SROs. Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner addressed the commissioners about the contract on Tuesday. Two days later, he said the commissioners will need to be swayed by the school system's commitment to pay 80 percent of an SRO's salary, if the additional officers are going to be hired.
"In order to meet their request, we would have to hire an additional 25 officers, and that is something we can't afford to do right now," said Turner on Thursday. "We don't have money to hire that many new personnel built into our budget. That could change, though.
"Maybe the commissioners would be more inclined to hire the additional officers, if they see the school system is willing to pay 80 percent of an SRO's salary."
Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he will have to discuss the SRO matter with Corrective Superintendent John Thompson before the Board of Commissioners can make a decision on the matter. Bell said the school system has to be "amenable" to helping the county pay for the resources needed by the SROs. The chairman added, "Only I can say we don't have the money to pay for those officers ...
"If the school board is willing to sit down with the board [of commissioners] and negotiate the contract, then we can move forward on this thing," Bell said.
The SROs are responsible for security at the district's eight high schools, 14 middle schools and the alternative school in Jonesboro. Each high school has its own SRO. Two years ago, the district changed from having an SRO in every middle school, to having one officer for every two middle schools.
There had been a push in the school system over the last year, though, to return to the one SRO for every middle school format.
District spokesperson Charles White said the Clayton County Police Department provided 18 SROs during the 2007-08 school year. White added that Forest Park and Riverdale police departments each provided two SROs as well.
However, those officers were assigned to schools within their respective cities. An additional SRO will be needed, or re-assigned, in the 2009-10 school year, when the district's ninth high school opens its doors.
SROs have been in Clayton County schools since 1993. They are in the schools to enforce local and state laws, as well as establish strong rapport with children. Several middle school SROs also teach Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) classes to seventh-graders.
"A lot of the gang-related information we receive comes to us through our SROs," Turner said. "They are a great help to us as we fight the influence of gangs in our county. They are around the children a lot, so it allows the children to become comfortable enough with the SRO to share some information."
White said the district has no comment about Turner's comments to the county commission, because no school system officials attended the meeting. Turner said he did not know when the county commission will vote on the new SRO contract.