COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — When students and teachers return to Columbus public schools in August, they will see a higher level of security.
It's the first time the Muscogee County School District's new police department will be put into action — after being created in response to the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas.
At a recent school board meeting, officials talked about hiring officers over the summer and expressed concerns over the headquarters being located in the alternative school.
The first hiring phase is this year for the command staff (one captain and two sergeants, in addition to the already hired police chief) and 15 officers, one at each of the nine high schools and six rotating among the 12 middle schools. The second phase will be next year, hiring six officers to rotate among 32 elementary schools.
To anyone wondering why it's taking "so long" to hire the officers, newly hired Police Chief Greg Arp said, each candidate is going through background investigations, including polygraphs and psychological assessments.
"I want the very best individuals as a representation of this board and of this community," he said, "being in the schools on a daily basis."
District 4 representative Naomi Buckner asked Arp whether he is considering diversity as he determines who will be hired for the police department.
Arp replied, "We're looking for the best people, period. . I don't care what color they are. We're hoping that we get an equal number of female and male staff."
The department's headquarters will be in renovated space at the Marshall Success Center, which houses the district's alternative school.
Kia Chambers, the nine-member board's lone countywide representative, voiced concern about the location.
"It's important to me that the students don't feel like they're in prison or YDC (youth detention center)," Chambers said. "So it's very important to me that we don't even make that an appearance."
The headquarters "won't be full of officers," Arp said, because they'll be patrolling and stationed at assigned schools. "We don't plan on sitting behind the desk."
Arp acknowledged there will be police signage at Marshall so folks know where to find the department's headquarters. "However," he said, "you're not going to see a bunch of patrol cars around the front of the building. You're not going to see officers congregated in one area."
Arp added, "We're here to enhance their education. We're here to make sure that, whenever they come to school every day, they don't have to worry about anything. The relationships with these officers in the schools is going to be paramount to the success of this program."
District 6 representative Mark Cantrell asked Arp where the officers will start work each day.
"The plan is, every morning, whenever you drop off your student or your child at the school, you're going to see one of our smiling faces standing out in front," Arp said. ". I'm passionate about these officers getting to know the families as well as the students. It's going to make or break this program."
Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 said the police officers "have to become a part of not just the student family but the faculty and the leadership at the school, so that they're not just standing around, that they're actually contributing to the students, the daily life of the students at the school."
Last spring, the MCSD administration and board discussed how to improve the district's security.
In May 2018, the board upgraded superintendent David Lewis' recommendation to establish the police department, instead of using local law enforcement officers who were off duty from other agencies. He had recommended boosting MCSD's security staff from 17 part-time officers to 10 full-time officers, including one for each high school, seven part-time officers and three additional positions.
The board's majority expanded that recommendation, calling for a full-time officer at each middle school as well. So the board approved adding $1,692,467, including $892,467 in start-up costs, to MCSD's $2,133,871 budget for security.
During last week's meeting, the board approved the police department's initial equipment request to spend $478,363 for 19 Ford Taurus pursuit sedan vehicles from Wade Ford of Smyrna and $59,638 for 13 two-way Motorola radios and 13 wireless speaker microphones from Mobile Communications of America.
Information from: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, http://ledger-enquirer.com