Most school safety officer complaints are disproved

An incident that led to the recent firing of a Richmond County school safety officer is the only public complaint involving a worker with that department so far this school year, according to officials.

And despite records showing eight complaints being filed against Richmond County school officers for all of last school year, all were later deemed to be unfounded and the officers were cleared.

The protocol for how such reports are handled first involves a preliminary investigation by the school safety office. Besides the recent case of former officer James Holmon, school safety Lt. Richard Roundtree said workers in his department can't remember the last time an officer was fired because of a complaint.

Mr. Holmon was fired Sept. 22 after an investigation determined that he used excessive force on a 14-year-old student after a Sept. 11 football game at the Academy of Richmond County stadium. He was accused of taking the 14-year-old student to the ground and putting his hand around his neck after the student reportedly used a curse word and said he would punch him in the face.

Mr. Holmon was overheard on a recording from a video camera attached to his uniform saying he would kill the teen, and he had to be restrained by other officers.

An investigation determined that Mr. Holmon had violated the school safety department's procedures.

In Mr. Holmon's termination letter, school officials said that school officers are to "deal professionally with non-respectful and incendiary statements, students and citizens." The letter added, "This regrettable reality is almost a daily occurrence."

According to procedures in the district's School Safety Department Employee Manual, an officer should use force only when necessary and should never continue to do so when the individual has ceased to resist.

"Officers shall be tactful in the performance of their duties, shall control their tempers, exercise the utmost patience and discretion and shall not engage in argumentative discussions even in the face of extreme provocation," the manual says.

One of last year's eight complaints included a January allegation involving Mr. Holmon. He was accused of physically restraining and arresting a student and drawing his weapon to break up a large crowd outside a Josey High basketball game. He was cleared in that incident along with another officer, who was accused by a parent of using excessive force against her son.

Mr. Holmon was reprimanded for an April 2007 incident in which two students accused him of grabbing their shirts and lifting them off the ground after someone commented about his balding head.

Lt. Roundtree said most complaints have been filed by parents and stem from a student fight that an officer had to break up. He said parents hear their child's version of what happened and "a parent accuses you of putting a hand on their child for no good reason."

In the most recent case involving Mr. Holmon, Lt. Roundtree said, the school safety office didn't call in the Richmond County Sheriff's Office, noting that there were no injuries. Family members also haven't filed a complaint, according to the sheriff's office.

Lt. Roundtree said the school safety office typically handles its own investigations, with the exception of cases "severe or criminal in nature."

He said the department first conducts its own preliminary investigation, which is forwarded to Superintendent Dana Bedden. He said Dr. Bedden then decides whether the school safety department should continue with the investigation or have the school system's Professional Standards department called in, which Lt. Roundtree said usually occurs when injuries are involved.

Once the investigation is finished, a determination is made as to whether the officer should be cleared or receive a reprimand or other corrective action.

Shortly after Mr. Holmon's firing in the Sept. 11 incident, Dr. Bedden said the school safety office has had many "frivolous" complaints lodged against it during his tenure. He said that was one reason video cameras were attached to officer uniforms starting this school year.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3851 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com

OFFICER'S DUTIES

Richmond County school safety officer duties:

- Responsible for area within 500 yards of school board property or at school events off school property.

- Assist principals in maintaining order at schools.

- Conduct investigations of incidents as required by board policies and state law.

- Enforce state and local statutes on school board property and take action when violations are reported or observed.

- Serve as a resource to the administration and make classroom presentations on law enforcement issues as requested by faculty.

- Supervise other law enforcement officers at assigned school sites, at athletic events, or other incidents requiring an increased need for law enforcement.

- Report to the principal or other administrators any crimes committed or planned at a school site.

- Remove trespassers and issue criminal trespass warnings or arrests when necessary.

- Respond to calls for assistance from other officers at other schools.

- Help principals train faculty members on how to respond to emergencies

Source: Richmond County School System Web site, Richmond County school officials