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Posted: October 25, 2012 10:00 p.m.

Fact check: Deputies in schools

Republican sheriff's candidate Philip Bradford has repeatedly said over the past few weeks that the officers working in Newton County schools aren't qualified to be watching over students.

However, law enforcement officers in Georgia don't have to have any special training to be a school resource officer, according to Ryan Powell, the spokesman for the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the state regulatory agency over law enforcement officials.

Bradford, who is a captain with the Covington Police Department, said in The Covington News' Oct. 17 forum that the school resource officers "are not trained," but in the sit-down video he conducted with The News prior to the forum, he said the school resource officers were not certified.

"There are actually 15 school resource officers and only three of them have been to school resource officer certification, which is very important," Bradford said.

Georgia does not have a separate, dedicated school resource officer certification, Powell said. In addition, officials at the Newton County Sheriff's Office said they do dedicated SRO training in-house.

How much training is enough?
The vast majority of law enforcement officers in Georgia are required to have the basic law enforcement certification, which is earned through an 11-week, 408-hour course offered by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.

Except for a few exceptions, such as purely administrative personnel or jailers, a person cannot serve as a law enforcement officer without completing this basic training.

In addition, officers have to have 20 hours of annual training to maintain their certification. (A new law passed January 2012 says that all new officers must get re-certified every four years, according to Lt. Paul Gunter, training coordinator for the Newton County Sheriff's Office.)

The Newton County Sheriff's Office requires all officers who serve as school resource officers to have a basic law enforcement certification. In addition, Sheriff Ezell Brown, the Democratic incumbent, said that all SROs are required to study a basic SRO curriculum.

As far as the state is concerned, that's more than enough training to be an SRO.

Republican Bradford said if elected, he would require all SROs to attend a voluntary 40-hour certification offered through the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. According to training center's website, the course covers topics that "include the role of the SRO within the school environment, search and seizure in the school, gang awareness, interviews and interrogations and dealing with adolescents."

Powell said the state's training council recommends the training, but does not require it.

"We would certainly recommend it; however, the legislature has not mandated it," Powell said in an email.

"There has never been a need to have a mandated certification since they are basic law enforcement officers. If they are going to work in the school environment as a law enforcement officer, their agency may elect to send them to the SRO program."

In a perfect world, all SROs would attend the 40-hour course, but Brown said he prefers to do in-house training because the sheriff's office is operating shorthanded.

"We offer a tremendous amount of (internal) training every year. Deputies pick where it fits into their schedule," Brown said this week. "(Because) we're running short handed right now, we can't do block training. We can't spend a week or more (just) training."

The majority of training takes place at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center's location in Forsyth, so instead of sending SROs to the week-long course, sheriff's office Training Coordinator Lt. Paul Gunter has developed a local SRO curriculum.

"If we (internally) develop anything equal to or different form GPSTC (the training center), there are no problems," Gunter said, because the state has no requirements for SROs.

State spokesman Powell said Peace Officer Standards and Training Council does not rate the quality of in-house training nor does the agency approve in-house lesson plans.

"In service or refresher training programs do not have to be approved by POST," Powell said, though he added, "The lesson plans should be on file with the agency."

Training in Newton's house
According to the sheriff's office curriculum, SROs are supposed to get 20 hours of dedicated SRO training. Gunter said that much of the SRO training overlaps with general training required maintain certification.

Bradford told The News that if he ever said SROs need to be certified as such he misspoke, and said that his larger point is that SROs don't have enough training period.

"Those (SROs) are not staffed (on the road or in the jail) so the sheriff office is not dependent on them every day for manpower on the street because they're in the school every day," Bradford said. "It doesn't hurt them to send them to a school for one week. They could take a van over there for one week."

However, in the forum and a separate interview, Brown said that the SRO training he requires ends up surpassing the 40-hour course over time.

Gunter said he has a background in education and spends a lot of his time develop training lesson. He said in his SRO training, he tries to catch officers up on any new laws passed by the state, new court decisions that could affect search and seizure laws, drugs and gangs and other school issues.

He said the sheriff's office also sent deputies to a special school safety training a couple of years ago where presenters included a survivor from the Columbine High School and an FBI agent in charge of the Virginia Tech college shooting. The office also did an active shooter simulation at Cousins Middle School three years ago.

The sheriff's office SROs had an average of 37.2 hours of training in 2012, with a median training level of 34 hours. In 2011, most people had less training, but the numbers vary significantly year to year, and other years saw more training.

Looking at SROs training records, most of it appears to be general law enforcement training that would aid any officer, but Gunter said he tries to tailor courses for his SROs, or any other division when possible.

"What I look at how best can to have the men and women be the best they can be, and maybe one step above everybody else," Gunter said.

Jail experience a pro or con?
One of Bradford's main complaints was that many SROs only had practical jail experience, and that dealing with hardened criminals didn't prepare officers to deal with students, who are a completely difference audience.

However, Brown said not only do all SROs have basic law enforcement certification, they also go through an introductory SRO curriculum and Brown and Gunter see their additional jail experience as an unmitigated pro.

"If officers work in the jail and communicate with those folks, they can communicate with anyone," Gunter said. "If we had the budget, it would be great to start every office in the jail before they go on the road."

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