Hall County sheriff’s Cpl. Vic Gazaway spends his days on the campus of South Hall Middle School teaching sixth-graders about the dangers of drugs and gangs. He says he acts as both a mentor and a deterrent for kids who are 14 by the time they leave the school.
Gazaway worries about what will happen if his job, and those of five other deputies, are eliminated. Middle school resource officers are among a number of positions being considered for cuts by Hall County school officials wrestling with having to trim up to $9.9 million out of next year’s budget.
"These are very critical years for a kid," Gazaway said. "During their middle school years they go from being a child to an adolescent to a teenager. If they have us here, we can influence the decisions they make."
Gazaway teaches a class aimed at resisting gangs, drugs and violence to students in a sixth-grade health class. He keeps an eye out for tell-tale gang attire to nip any potential gang activity before it can take root. He also works to build a rapport with students, showing them that cops aren’t just concerned with locking people up.
Gazaway thinks sheriff’s deputies would have to start from scratch in high schools to build trust with students if the middle school officers are eliminated.
"The middle school would lose that connection," he said. "If I can reach them when they’re still kids, what we have in the middle school environment would carry over to high school."
A chief concern among local law enforcement is that gang activity, which has been relatively dormant in recent years, would return if deputies aren’t in Hall’s middle schools. Sheriff’s officials contend middle schools could become a recruiting ground for gangs without a daily law enforcement presence.
"It would be a lot easier for them to influence children," Gazaway said.
Under an arrangement started a decade ago, the Hall County school system pays 70 percent of the salaries of its school resource officers; the sheriff’s office pays the remainder. The total cost for all 13 officers and related expenses is $861,000; the school system pays $603,000 of that. By cutting the six middle school officers, the system would save about $213,000 in salaries.
Sheriff Steve Cronic and members of his command staff recently met individually with school board members to plead their case.
"We have urged them to keep this program," Hall County sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said.
Hall County school Superintendent Will Schofield said the middle schools resource officer program was "one of many" the system is looking at in an effort to cut costs.
"We’ve got everything from nurses to school resource officers to graduation coaches to instructional coaches, and most fundamentally ... classroom teachers," Schofield said. "It’s going to be a time when not only private industry and families but government entities like school systems are going to have to revisit what our priorities are."
While it was first thought a decision might be made on the resource officers by next month, the splitting of the state legislative session means an outcome may not be known until the school budget is finalized in June.
Strickland said if the positions are cut, the deputies can return to work in other divisions of the sheriff’s office and have their salaries fully funded. But the sheriff’s office cannot afford to pay the 70 percent the school board is paying to keep them in schools, he said.
"With the economic times we’re faced with, we don’t have the resources to pick that up now," Strickland said, noting the sheriff’s office has cut 4,000 manhours through furloughs each month.
Sheriff’s and school officials both stress they have a good relationship and will continue to work closely together regardless of the outcome.
"I think we understand each other very well, and that’s that we’d all like to keep the program," Schofield said. "The question’s going to be what can we afford to keep, what can we keep in its entirety, what can we keep partially, what can we combine to make more efficient. We’re going to have to be open to all possibilities."