ATLANTA — Principals and administrators in school districts without campus-based officers are getting visits from state troopers in a program that began two years ago, long before the killings at a Connecticut elementary school.
Officers in the Georgia State Patrol are generally thought of as guardians of highways, stopping speeders, arresting drunk drivers and untangling accidents. But patrol commander Col. Mark McDonough instituted a policy two years ago to get troopers in schools each calendar quarter where they patrol.
“At first there were a lot of questions. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Why are you here?’,” he said.
There’s no schedule or plan to visit every school in a trooper’s multi-county patrol area. Some merely drop in where their own children attend. The only guidance is to concentrate on schools that have no campus officers or in-house police force such as those in Augusta and Savannah.
“As far as state troopers go, we have had no visits or patrols to report,” said Kurt Hetager, a spokesman for the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools.
If it’s near a holiday, they use the opportunity to talk about the need to wear seat belts while riding to vacations or family visits. On other occasions, they answer questions, meet with students and show that law enforcement authority figures are human, too.
Such community-policing techniques are routine for beat cops as they try to get to know the people they are protecting, but they’re not common for state troopers.
“You can’t buy good community relations inside a patrol car, not having contact,” McDonough said, noting the benefit of getting out of the car and meeting people. “That’s just basic, being-a-good-neighbor type behavior.”
The troopers are also supposed to familiarize themselves with each campus layout and its safety plan so they can respond to a crisis by assisting local officers and be prepared in case they happen to be the first to arrive. Every trooper received training five years ago in dealing with an active shooter in a place such as a school campus, and they all got a refresher last year.