Officers on Patrol at South Mississippi Schools Help Lower Incidents

The sight of police and security officers is common on public school campuses in South Mississippi.

Five years ago, the state had 11 officers on campuses in four counties. Now there are 200 in 62 counties, said Robert Laird, director of the state Division of School Safety.

"The program has grown exponentially," Laird said. "It started with a rash of school shootings, but what educators have found is that putting officers in schools has collateral benefits."

The officers, many trained specially for the job by the state, are responsible not only for enforcing the law, but also for safety assessment, mentoring and teaching character education courses and law-related courses to teachers, he said.

Students' rights

The biggest drawback to having in-school police that the American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi has seen is the ability of these officers to take children out of school and send them to Youth Court for school-related offenses.

Nsombi Lambright with the state ACLU said, "We see children who are in a fight, with no weapon involved, detained. That's the point where parents get upset. They don't want to see their children at Youth Court because they smarted off at teachers."

But Laird believes the benefits outweigh the downside.

"We found statistically that schools with School Resource Officers have a lower student incident rate than schools without," Laird said.

He also said that a survey by the governor's Office of Highway Safety Programs showed that students feel more comfortable in school and learn more effectively with officers on campus.

"We don't stick with a program that is not statistically successful," he said.

Some schools have their own in-house security teams and others rely on city police or county deputies partially or fully paid through grants.

But either way, uniformed officers at high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools are considered a necessary part of the staffing.

"Our kids are living in a different world today than we knew growing up," said Hank Bounds, superintendent of Pascagoula Schools. "We are just so much more aware of the bad things today than when we were in school."

And though school shootings at Pearl High School and at Columbine, Colo., were high on the list of bad things, drugs are right up there.

Security on staff

Moss Point and Pascagoula are among the school systems that have their own in-school team of certified police officers who make arrests without having to call city police.

Moss Point's might be the largest and most thorough security by some measure. But each of the eight South Mississippi school districts The Sun Herald called for this story has a team of security officers, allows random drug searches and uses a drug dog at least once a year to deter drug use or possession on campus.

"These days, you'd be crazy not to have the drug dog," said Biloxi Superintendent Paul Tisdale. "Long Beach got a lot of press about drugs and overdoses, but it's no different than most communities on the Coast. We would be foolish to think we have no problem with drugs. Why would we be any different, really?"

Biloxi has three officers, obtained through federal grants, and 800 cameras at its schools. The cameras may deter drug use, but they are really there for monitoring school life, Tisdale explained.

The officers?

"They've kinda become part of life and they have taken steps to be part of school life," Tisdale said.

Biloxi's campuses are closed, a common practice now at schools. That means students don't leave the campus for lunch or during off time. One reason for such restraints is "the prospect of litigation" and the fact that "you don't know what they are ingesting" while off campus, Tisdale said.

"It's a different world than it was 30 years ago. It's a different world than it was three years ago," he said. "For example, how many kids leave home with a parent at home in the morning?

"Can you stop the spread of drugs at school? No," he said. "You do the best you can to cope and maintain a drug-free atmosphere. Most kids are very responsible. But all it takes are one or two."

Officers help schools take a stand

Sheree Nelson, assistant principal at East Central High School, said her school tracks drug issues pretty hard. They have drug arrests at the high school every year, already some this year. But she said she believes her school attracts students and parents who know they are strict.

"Students on this campus know we are serious," Nelson said.

Lt. Alfred Sexton with the Gulfport Police Department said their drug dog is the biggest tool for fighting drugs at his city schools.

"It's a deterrent in itself," Sexton said. "The kids are really scared of the dog's capabilities and knowing they are subject to search. Kids know that the dog going through the halls can happen at any time."

David Kopf, superintendent of Hancock County public schools, has two security officers from the Hancock County Sheriff's Department.

Kopf said the major advantage is a good bridge between students and law enforcement.

"It's a person of contact that children can cordially talk to," he said.

Moss Point guys

Moss Point has a seven-person, self-contained school district security staff. Ten years ago, they had three officers.

Campus police carry guns and have badges. The drug they find is mostly marijuana, sometimes methamphetamine.

But Jerry Bridges, chief of security for Moss Point schools, said, "This is definitely not an easy place to pass off drugs."

Bridges has pictures of students under the glass of his desktop and when he walks down the hall at class change, he gets a high five and sometimes a hug. He knows the students at the high school. Some come to him when he's at home in the yard.

He and his officers are there for the students' protection in more ways than one.

Capt. Lionel Howie explains:

"People are on drugs for kicks or because they have problems they can't handle. They need to be aware that there are people they can talk to and if the pressure from peers gets too bad, there are people for guidance.

"That's what we do over here."

Failure rate is high

The failure rate for people taking the School Resource Officer Basic Course is 15 to 20 percent. The standards are high, said Robert Laird, director of the state Division of School Safety.

"That's not saying anything against the person in the course," Laird said. "It takes a unique personality to be a School Resource Officer. You have to be a mentor, teacher, psychologist. Not everybody can do that."