Kevin: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2018, nearly half of U.S. public schools had at least one security officer present. In schools with more than 1,000 students, approximately 70% had security personnel of some form. As schools adjust their own security policies following the horrific shootings at a school in Uvalde, Texas, many school leaders and parents are wondering about the role of police in schools.
Kevin: Is it necessary to have armed security on every campus? What is the appropriate role for officers when it comes to safety, discipline, and education? And in light of tragedies like Uvalde, should anything change about the role of police in the education system?
This is What I Want To Know. And today I'm joined by Chief Ronald Applin to find out.
Ronald Applin is the Chief of Police for Atlanta Public Schools, a district that serves over 50,000 students. A graduate of Atlanta Public Schools himself, Chief Applin went on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, earned his master's degree in public administration, and taught criminal justice as an adjunct professor at both the University of Phoenix and the Reinhardt University Public Safety Institute.
Chief Applin had worked in law enforcement for over three decades before taking on the role of Chief of Police for Atlantic Public Schools when the office was created in 2016.
Today he is here to talk to us about the role of school police and how to ensure the safety of our children. Chief Applin, welcome to the show.
Ronald: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Kevin: So there's so much I want to talk to you about. I mean, school safety is such a huge issue, and you're in a rare position because Atlanta's been one of the few cities to name a chief for Atlanta Public Schools, and it's your hometown. So, tell me, what drew you to policing, particularly growing up in Atlanta?
Ronald: Wow. So, it's a long story. When I was a kid, I go back to an event that took place that I experienced as a kid. I was about five to seven years old. My father was stopped by the police. We were traveling to his hometown in Kingston. And I remember us having to follow the police officer to the precinct. We followed him to the precinct. We were all in the car, six of us and my mom. So there are seven of us. He got out of the car and went inside. When he came back out, his shirt was torn. His lip was bloody. And my mom just screamed. She's like, "What happened? What happened?" And my dad said, "They beat me up." And I can remember in the backseat of the car thinking, I was upset, I'm five years old, seven years old, and I was upset.
So I think back to that time and that moment and how it stayed in my head, even till today. I've always wanted to be associated with something related to dealing with the public. I did a little time in the Marine Corps Reserve, so it was the closest to being in the military without actually being in the military active. And I thought that this is one of the things I wanted to do. I want to work, serve the public. I wanted to be able to — I know it sounds prophetic almost, but that's something I wanted to do. I really did want to serve the public, serve my community.
Kevin: Wow, I didn't know that story, but I believe if you're a young African American man, or if you're a man, African American man in this country, you've experienced something like that. And I know I did in Indiana. But for many people who experienced something similar to what you experienced at a young age, the hostility grows, and they become more anti-law enforcement and police, and even could resort to more self-destructive behavior. It's interesting that experience drew you closer to expressing your desire to engage in public service in a law enforcement capacity. Why do you think that is?
Ronald: Well, I believe that I could do something from within. What can I do inside to help stop things like that or prevent things like that from happening? And being in this position as a chief of police, one of the things I've said was, "I will not tolerate someone who abuses anyone." I mean, that will not happen under my command. I will not hire a person who does that. If it's in your history that you've done that, you will never be, as long as I'm the chief, you'll never be an employee of Atlanta Public Schools Police Department. So, I figured one way to do it is to do it from within. I can take care of things that way to really help reduce things like that, keep things like that from happening.
Kevin: I'm struck by, again, your commitment to work from within. And now you're in a job where working within Atlanta public schools is huge. How did this office come to be created? Because most cities still have police officers within their core department, and they're assigned to schools, some on an ad hoc basis, some on a rotating basis. But by having a chief of Atlanta Public Schools, there is a real commitment and a dedicated commitment to making sure you have continuity in the deployment of safety officers. So, talk a little bit about how this whole thing came to be created?
Ronald: That is exactly... You talked about the continuity between the police and the school. That was one of the things that were important to the district at the time: How do we bring in a group of officers who are in alignment with the mission of the school? And what you get, a lot of times — it's not a bad thing — but what you get when you have an agency that is contracting with the organization — you may not get the continuity that you need.
Ronald: We will create it so that we could be in alignment with the mission of the district. And we train our officers that way. We have policies and procedures in place that are in alignment with the district’s policies and procedures. We have expectations for our officers to be a certain way. And that's what we look for.
Kevin: The polling shows that parents view school safety as the second issue behind the quality of the teaching in the school. In fact, for many years, school safety was always highly ranked, but they had academics ahead. Academics are now even behind school safety. And the shootings, of course, that have taken place in recent years have exacerbated, sort of, that reality. And one of the things that parents talk about is this idea of a relationship between school safety personnel, school police officers, and the community. And you talked about the continuity of that. What were some of the things that you have done over the last several years to make sure that there was a consistent, growing relationship where there's give and take between the school, your officers, and the community?
Ronald: Well, to begin with, it's, it is important to understand that safety impacts learning. We get that; we understand it. If a child is in an environment that's free from distractions, especially with safety issues, they're going to learn. They have a greater chance, a greater opportunity to learn and be successful, and of having education that is going to be a good quality education.
So, we get that. If we can create that environment — every single officer understands that — if I can make sure that the classroom is free of those distractions that we can control, it's going to be better for the student. So, starting from that point, we understand that.
And then, when we think about interacting with our students, when we think about the type of officer that we want, we bring in officers from various jurisdictions. And they may have been a police officer in Atlanta or DeKalb County. Some may have been in school systems, but we realized we had some programming to do with officers.
So, we were very intentional, and still are very intentional, about what we programmed them with. So, we wanted to make sure we looked at some things. And several of the things include social-emotional learning. We knew that the district was an SEL district, so we needed to — why not have our officers in alignment with that? So every officer is trained in social-emotional learning, restorative practices; of course, the name in and of itself speaks volumes. So, restorative practice was important because we knew what we didn't want to create. We wanted to break this pipeline to prison idea. So, at the end of the day, if we can give them some tools other than the ones around their belt, that's going to make a difference. All of our officers are, within the first year — they're going to be trained in crisis intervention team or crisis intervention team youth.
That training is geared towards identifying certain signs of disorders, and we respond differently. So, because a child may be acting a certain way, it may seem defiant, but we have to recognize that, "Okay, that is this order, ABC possibly," so I'm going to do something different as a result. We also train them in things like mental health first aid. So, when we have kids who may be going through crisis, one of the things I want officers to do, be engaged with, is the students, if we can be engaged with them. If they feel comfortable coming to us, sharing with us, telling us what's going on at the end of the day, that's going to make us that much more safe.
Just as if we can, it's amazing to see some of my officers talk about, "Oh, that's John, he plays football, he does this," and they can tell you A, B, C, and D about these kids. We want every officer to be in a space where they're engaging with our students. The students are comfortable engaging with them; we don't want them to be afraid of us. We want them to be comfortable talking to us.
Kevin: Every person, indeed, every child wants to be seen and heard, and the best way to do that is by engaging in the things you're talking about, Chief. The relationship building and the communication. I really applaud you for the SEL training because I think every school staff, teacher, and administrator in America should be trauma-informed and should have that training, every single person associated with kids in American schools.
Now, you've been at this for five or six years, and I don't know if there's any quantitative data, but just in terms of your understanding, has this impacted the learning environment for students?
Ronald: The state does studies every year about school climate, and you'll see some of the improvements with that. I don't know the numbers right off. But one of the things that I look at is: Are we keeping our kids in class? And that's important, too.
Ronald: And if we have fewer kids going through the criminal justice system, then that means that there are more kids who are going in the classroom and they're paying attention and then doing what they're supposed to do. And we're seeing them at graduation. So, we've reduced the number of kids charged with crimes. We cut them in half the first year, and we're still reducing that. And we're still looking at ways to close that gap.
Kevin: A lot of people are talking about the need for more intense intervention. For instance, some are saying teachers should be armed; some are saying that you need to make sure that the locks are more secure and that only a handful of people have access to even open the doors. What are your responses to some of the things that have come in the wake of the tragedy in Uvalde, and how do you deal with crisis anyway? And in terms of people who are outside of the school community coming into the school property to cause harm?
Ronald: Yeah. Well, so we have to understand that when we're talking about school safety, it's a layered approach. There's not a single thing that's going to create a safe environment for schools. So, we have to look at multiple things that are going to help us with that. With our police department, we operate under the triad method. So, in the triad, just imagine a triangle and one part of the triangle is going to be the police officer. That's something we do all day every day, that we always learn how to do. That's when we started in this field: we were taught to be law enforcement officers, and then we're also counselors and mentors. So we have to be able to operate between those three sides efficiently. So sometimes, and most of the time we spend as counselors and educators, and then very few times, small times, we operate as law enforcement officers.
But when we talk about a crisis, this is one of the areas where we have to really be that warrior.
Ronald: Just make a switch from a guardian to a warrior. We really have to be warriors. And I wouldn't say it's a challenge, but it's something that we really have to be intentional about. Because when you're so used to working, operating a certain way, if you're not operating as a warrior, it's kind of hard to make that switch for some people. But we have to make sure we keep our people in a state of readiness so that they can make that switch.
Kevin: I find that really interesting, because earlier you said when you hire people, you're looking for a certain type of officer that would be more sensitive and can relate more to the SEL and the old-school officer-friendly approach where you're working with the community and the like. But then, in a crisis, it's clear you need that warrior, someone who can flip the switch.
Kevin: That seems like that's a tough balance to find, especially if the day-to-day is-
Kevin: ... More of the feeling, relationship, compassion, and then to have to really turn it on without any real notice; that seems like that will be pretty tough.
Ronald: Right. It could be challenging, and unfortunately we haven't; we've had a few incidents take place in the district where officers had to switch over to the warrior mindset, and they did a great job in responding and doing that. So, there wasn't a lapse in time. But you can work in an environment for so long you become complacent.
Ronald: And so, we have to do things as a leader. I have to do in my command staff, we have to do things to make sure that we are, every once in a while, we're pulling them out of an environment. And we're doing some stuff to help them think, to trigger that warrior mindset when they have to. But we mostly operate as guardians. I mean, that's mostly done all the time.
Kevin: I did want to ask you about when you deal with the students — there have been horror stories about suspensions, particularly for young men of color, young boys of color. We've all seen the images of five-year-olds being carted out in a police car in handcuffs because of behavior issues. I'm assuming that with the work you're doing, you're working with your school leaders so that those kinds of images don't exist in Atlanta public schools because…
Kevin: ... Yeah, because of the training you have. So, talk a little bit about that, because that's a big issue in a lot of cities.
Ronald: Again, that is the collaboration between the school and the police. And I talked to organizations, schools, schools who contract with police departments, and they look at us, and they admire what we're doing because this is one of the things that they're trying to get to. They can't get their contracted police department to participate in social and emotional learning. They can't get them to participate in restorative practice. Those are the things that I'm hearing. It's not all agencies, I'm sure. But there are a lot of them out there who are doing that.
We also take advantage of our level of supervision. It's always: ask a question. If there's an issue, a concern about what you're doing, if you're not sure about what you're doing, you always ask questions. They're always collaborating with principals. So, there's always a conversation when we deal with an issue. While the officer has the discretion to charge a person, they're going to talk to the principal; they're going to talk to their sergeants; they're going to have a conversation about it. What can we do different, if we can? Unfortunately, some kids we have to arrest; some kids we have to charge, but a lot of kids we don't. Once you put them in a criminal justice system, it's just hard. So hard to get them out of it. Just so hard to get them out.
Kevin: Well, Chief, I have one last question. This is what I really want to know. Let's say that you're talking to a large city that is considering following your example in Atlanta. Lay out the blueprint on how they start this. And I know you've talked about hiring, you've talked about SEL, and you've probably had countless conversations along these lines, but lay out the blueprint on how to change the thinking of institutional policing so that you can adopt an approach that meets kids where they are similar to what you're doing in Atlanta.
Ronald: I think it starts with training. Again, I was a trainer in the police academy before I became, I was on the SWAT team, and I had a mentality on the SWAT team: If the bad guys were nails and I was a hammer, that's the way I looked at things, and it took me some time to make that switch. But absent that, look at things that you can do to give them more tools. What the officer on the street has that's different from me is that I have some tools up here that will prepare me for dealing with kids. They don't have that. They don't get that in the training. They train them to be warriors and not guardians.
So, when we brought our officers in and we bring them in now and we start giving them SEL, restorative practices, all that crisis intervention team, we start giving them all this training, all these things to think about up here except around the belt, that's the blueprint in and of itself; it’s the foundation of that.
It may take a little time interacting with kids for that to kick in, but if I'm in an environment, and I see that this kid is having some mental health issues, and I recognize that as such, I'm going to deal with them in a different way than I would if I was on the street. On the street, I may lock them up and send them to jail and let the jail deal with them. But in a school environment, if I can recognize that and get them the help that they need, we're going to be that much better off at the end of the day.
So, when you think about cities looking to build a school police department, I would strongly encourage them to look at what you put into those officers when they come on board, because that's going to make a big difference at the end of the day.
Kevin: Wow. Really, really good stuff. Chief Ronald Applin, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Ronald: All right. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Ronald Applin is the chief of police for Atlanta Public Schools, a district that serves more than 50,000 students. A graduate of Atlanta Public Schools himself, Chief Applin went on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps, earned his master's degree in public administration, and taught criminal justice as an adjunct professor at the University of Phoenix and the Reinhardt University Public Safety Institute. Chief Applin had worked in law enforcement for more than three decades before taking on the chief of police role when Atlantic Public Schools created the office in 2016.
Join The Email List
Sign up and get notifications on new What I Want to Know podcast episodes.
Thanks for subscribing!
Check your email to confirm your subscription.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.