Chattanooga area schools call for police help thousands of times a year

Chattanooga area schools call for police help thousands of times a year

November 13th, 2011 by Kevin Hardy in News

East Ridge police officer Charles Miller gets into his police car in this file photo to patrol areas surrounding East Ridge Middle and High Schools, where he worked as School Resource Officer.

East Ridge police officer Charles Miller gets into...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County middle and high schools called for police help 20 times a day on average last school year.

Nearly half the 3,624 police calls received from the 20 schools that have a law enforcement presence came from five campuses: Washington Alternative School, with 415 calls; Ooltewah High School, with 394; Tyner High School, with 359; Howard School of Academics and Technology, with 329; and East Lake Middle School, with 290.

School resource officers who are assigned full time at the 20 schools handled nearly all the calls, though some more serious matters required additional help or investigation from outside officers.

The reasons for these calls vary just as much as those for officers on the street. Officers in schools could be called to help with after-school traffic, to file a police report for a stolen bicycle or to assist with breaking up a fight.

Yet there were enough serious incidents to result in more than one arrest a day over the entire 180-day school calendar, according to figures from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Last year, officers dealt with 112 assaults, 86 fights and 110 thefts in the 20 schools, records show. They issued nearly 200 citations and made 264 total arrests, including 37 for felonies.

Fights, assaults and thefts top the list of criminal activity on campuses, records show. Trespassing, tobacco offenses, drug offenses and gang-related activities are also common issues.

Figures from the sheriff's office include only the 20 schools with stationed officers, or 20 out of 33 Hamilton County public middle and high schools. Officials say there isn't enough money for SROs in every school.

Two of the remaining 13 schools -- Signal Mountain Middle/High School and East Ridge High School -- have municipal officers on campus but not sheriff's deputies.

Some people expressed surprise at the high number of school incidents, yet none said they were worried about safety at school.

"It would be nice if all those numbers were zero," said Tom DuBose, a local education advocate. "I think that just shows the need for these [school resource] officers to be there."

But perhaps the most surprising finding is that last year's overall numbers were an improvement -- the best in three years.

Calls for service, arrests and citations have all significantly decreased in recent years. While the 20 schools tallied more than 3,000 calls for help last year, that number wasn't close to the 5,242 calls received the previous year.

Common Issues

The sheriff's office points to the downward trend as proof that the SRO program is working.

"That's how the program is designed," said Lt. Shaun Shepherd, who oversees the program. "You want your law enforcement numbers to go down. And you want your other numbers, like time in the classroom, to go up."

But school resource officers don't spend their entire days enforcing the law. The sheriff's office says SROs fulfill four roles -- law enforcement, classroom instructor, adviser and role model.

Last year, officers gave 1,021 classroom presentations, participated in 307 club activities and attended 1,124 special events such as athletic games or school performances, records show.

And while the number of calls for police help may seem high at some schools, officials say it's not as jarring as it may appear.

Shepherd said officers spend much of their time building relationships with students, both in formal classroom presentations and informally through casual conversations.

"This is probably the most proactive thing we do in law enforcement," he said. "Most everything in law enforcement is reactionary."

Those close relationships could partially explain the sheer amount of police calls in schools with SROs, he said. When students feel comfortable, they might be more likely to report criminal activity.

While enforcing the law, Shepherd said it's the intangibles -- like getting kids to think about decision-making and consequences -- that make the SRO program worthwhile.

"That's something we can't show you in numbers," he said.

School Safety

Despite the regular police involvement, parents, students and principals say they feel their schools are safe. Such is the case even at Ooltewah High, which had more calls for police assistance last year than any other regular public middle or high school.

"I don't ever wonder, 'Am I safe here?'" said Ooltewah senior Janay Medina. "It just doesn't cross my mind."

Principal Mark Bean said the school's 394 calls last year included an array of issues. He pointed to a recent problem with the school's traffic lights. Administrators called the SRO to help with after-school traffic by turning on his squad car's flashing blue lights. That counted as a call for police assistance.

"Most of those calls are not criminal or violent things," Bean said.

It's also worth noting that Ooltewah High holds about 1,400 students. Bean said the school saw eight fights last year, down from nine the year before. So far, only two fights have occurred this school year, he said.

"I put that up against anybody in the state," Bean said. "That's pretty darn good with 1,400 kids."

In comparison, Howard School of Academics and Technology, with about 650 students last year, had fewer calls for police help with 329. But Howard had 82 arrests, while Ooltewah High saw only 12 total arrests.

Still, East Hamilton Middle/High School, the county's largest school with about 2,000 students, had far fewer instances than either Howard or Ooltewah.

In 2010-11, East Hamilton recorded 121 calls for service and only two arrests.


Even if students feel safe, law enforcement action can cause disruptions and distractions in schools, whether in the hallways or the classroom.

Officials warn of drawing broad conclusions about student behavior from the SRO numbers. Numbers on fights, gang activity, drugs and alcohol use are useful in identifying problematic behaviors, they said, but most behavior issues at school aren't of a criminal nature.

East Hamilton Principal Eddie Gravitte said police and administrators jointly handle issues such as fights. But there is a clear separation of responsibility. Police use discretion on whether to arrest, and administrators use their discretion on which, if any, punishments to issue.

Gravitte said having resource officers -- East Hamilton has two officers because of its large size -- makes schools safer and creates a more positive atmosphere.

"I think some people have a misconception that, 'If I see a police car at the school or if I see police in the school, that must be a bad place,'" he said. "That's not the case at all."

DuBose, the education advocate and a bankruptcy analyst, volunteered with STAND for Children, a group committed to improving education, before its local office closed.

His daughter graduated in 2007 from Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, which at that time had a school resource officer, though it doesn't today. He said seeing an armed officer at his daughter's school was reassuring, not disconcerting.

"I think that's comforting to see," he said. "To see the face of a police officer every day, I think that's helpful for students."