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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Gerald Couch is sheriff of Hall County, Georgia, located north of Atlanta. The county implemented its SRO program in 1999.
I consider the job of school resource officer (SRO) to be one of the most important jobs in the entire Hall County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). SROs interact with students on a daily basis in a non-confrontational setting; that helps to bridge gaps in how teens view police and also helps police view students in a more positive light. Our department assigns an SRO to each of our middle schools and high schools. We also have additional SROs who work with students at the elementary schools and teach all fifth graders in the county.
Throughout the county, we dedicate 18 deputies to the school services unit in support of our six middle schools, six high schools, and 19 elementary schools. Each school is like a small community, and having officers there on a daily basis builds relationships—students trust the officers and report issues to SROs so the officers can respond effectively.
SROs are involved in criminal investigations as necessary, but officers are not to be involved in disciplinary issues. School resource officers are assigned in schools for issues that relate to law enforcement and to build relationships with students; school discipline issues are the responsibility of teachers and other school administrators.
SROs are trained to fulfill three primary roles: law enforcement, counselors, and educators. The main purpose of SROs is to keep the peace in their schools so students can learn in a safe environment. Second, officers act as law-related counselors who provide guidance and information to students, their families, and school staff while acting as links to support services both inside and outside the school environment. Finally, officers are law-related educators who provide the schools with an additional resource by sharing their expertise in the classroom.
One way our officers share their expertise is by conducting the ADVANCE program (Avoiding Drugs, Violence, and Negative Choices Early). Every fifth grade student in the county completes the ADVANCE program to learn strategies on development of social competence, conflict resolution, and positive alternatives to drugs, violence, and gangs. The program also covers social media, water safety, and our ‘healthy heroes,’ who teach good eating and fitness habits. At the graduation ceremonies, I shake each student’s hand, so I have met every fifth grader in Hall County. The program has operated for over a decade and is led by Lt. Gene Joy, who trained some of the parents of our current fifth grade students. We are proud that our program is used as a model for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association C.H.A.M.P.S. education program and has been adopted by other agencies.
Our department also offers the Teen Driver program—a week-long driver safety course that teaches proper safety skills and defensive driving. The program started in 2001 under the National Safety Council Defensive Driving guidelines, and we now partner with the state of Georgia to teach driver safety as part of license certification for the state. The driving program is taught about six times over the summer by SROs, who also cover one month of summer school. So the deputies work with students and families throughout the year in a variety of ways.
As I said, SROs are a very important job in HCSO and they are selected with care. I look for senior officers with excellent communication skills. SROs are more than a person wearing a badge—the students learn that the person behind the badge is a mom or dad that lives and works in the community. In addition to being the SRO, they are also a caring person that is engaged with the residents, often as a tee-ball or sports coach.
My office collaborates with school principals and the school board during the selection process, and a board interviews candidates for each school specifically. We also have a signed memorandum of understanding with schools to define the roles and responsibilities of the SROs in the schools. Deputies report to a sergeant and captain over the unit, and ultimately to me as the sheriff. But principals have input on the annual evaluation and we make sure that my office works with the schools to collaborate on school safety. Once selected, all the SROs in our county get training through the state of Georgia, then complete the NASRO [National Association of School Resource Officers] basic and advanced training courses. The NASRO training also gives deputies an opportunity to talk with other SROs and officers from different agencies.
SROs work on criminal activity at school, and theft is the largest problem that occurs. But during the last year we have added a drug dog, as a resource to help with preventative measures. The officers also do a lot of counseling and provide help to students, particularly as liaisons with services in the community. And SROs also collaborate with juvenile courts to support students.
Shortly after taking office as sheriff in 2013, I developed a new program—an innovation to address manpower demands. Previously, when citizens would come to report crimes, the records office would need to call in a patrol officer, who was pulled from their beat for up to two hours. We created community resource officers (CRO) based on the same concept as SROs. We now have CROs stationed at the north and south end of the county, as well as the center of the county, to address the special needs that patrol may not be able to address. In addition to taking crime reports, the officers interact with community members on a regular basis at community events, cookouts, and parades. The CROs also check on elderly citizens and respond to special problems. These officers have built trust, and residents want to talk with officers they know—the CROs they have seen at local events and stationed in their local community. The CRO position has grown over time since its inception, and now these deputies also handle social media and other forms of outreach.
When I started my career in 1981, the HCSO had 75 officers that all worked and lived in the same place. Today, we have 425 officers and about half live outside the neighborhood where they serve. Community policing principles such as the school resource officer unit and CROs have helped to integrate police in the community. We seek community input to address issues and problems and continually work to improve collaboration and trust between our residents and law enforcement.
Sheriff Gerald Couch
Hall County Sheriff Department
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