Outgunned | Second Metro Atlanta school police department adds rifles

Clayton County Schools Police rely on on pistols. That’s about to change
School shooters are showing up with rifles, but school officers first on the scene are often armed only with a pistol.
Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 3:19 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2023 at 12:57 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - The Clayton County Schools Police Department will soon arm its officers with rifles.

It’s the second district to decide to add patrol rifles after Atlanta News First Investigates started asking why some school police departments rely only on pistols to defend against a potential active shooter.

Clayton County School Police Chief Reynard Walker said he intends to issue patrol rifles to officers this year. “My goal is to make sure that they feel a little bit better going into a firefight prepared,” said Walker, during a recent active shooter drill in which his officers were training only with pistols.

None of the more than 100 Atlanta Public Schools police officers are currently qualified to use a patrol rifle, according to state records, a situation that Chief Ronald Applin said, “is going to change.”

Applin said his department has seven rifles. He’s planning to issue them to sergeants first, then other mobile patrol officers. He does not envision issuing rifles to every officer working inside Atlanta schools.

“We didn’t want to come in looking like we’re the military,” Applin said. “But at the end of the day, I understand and recognize that is a tool that’s going to give our officers an advantage.”

Covenant School shooting video changed minds

The March 27 shooting at Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, had a profound effect on Applin and other school law enforcement professionals.

Three grade schoolers and three staff members were killed by a former student who was armed with a pistol and two rifles. Nashville police responded, including officers with patrol rifles. On body-worn camera video released by Nashville police, officers are seen pushing their colleagues with rifles to the front of the stack approaching the shooter. One officer armed only with a pistol can be heard yelling, “rifle first,” over the fire alarm and gunfire inside the school.

One officer fired four rounds from a rifle at the shooter who was actively firing through a second floor window at officers and staff members in the school parking lot. The shooter was taken out from a stand-off distance, according to the video.


Officers armed only with pistols had to close the distance between themselves and the shooter before firing. “That video affirms the need for rifles,” Applin said. “Being able to address a threat from that distance that affirms it.”

Even though Georgia officers must qualify annually with their pistols at 25 yards, most pistols’ effective range in a real-world scenario is between 10 and 15 yards, according to police studies, including a 2010 report from the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee.

The effective range for a rifle is greater than 100 yards, even in the hands of an amateur. Rifle magazines also generally hold nearly twice as many rounds as a police pistol magazine.

Like at Covenant, school shooters are showing up with rifles. The Covenant shooter had two rifles and a pistol. If a school officer — the first on the scene — is armed only with a pistol, they’re outgunned, according to multiple law enforcement professionals.

Atlanta schools are waiting on the proper equipment to secure the new rifles before issuing them to officers. Georgia regulations also require officers to qualify on a rifle before they can use one on the job.

Applin said prevention is the key. His department has many more tools and programs to stop a shooting before it would ever happen. The district has weapons detection systems, recently added police K9s, and is installing bullet-resistant film to school windows and doors keep a shooter from gaining access.

Atlanta Police have patrol rifles. Applin added, “there are several law enforcement jurisdictions likely to respond with officers who have patrol rifles. APSPD is not the only law enforcement agency that will respond to an active shooter event.”

Some districts have rifles, some don’t

Atlanta News First Investigates searched individual training records for school police officers in a dozen departments across North Georgia.

  • Atlanta Public Schools Police - 0%
  • Cherokee Board of Education Police - 100%
  • Clayton County Schools Police - 0%
  • Cobb County Board of Education Police - 53%
  • Coweta County Schools SROs (Sheriff’s Deputies) - 87%
  • DeKalb Schools Department of Public Safety - 18%
  • (Fayette) Peachtree City Schools - City Police SROs - 100%
  • Fulton Schools Police - 34%
  • Forsyth County Schools - 79%
  • Gwinnett Public School Police - 61%
  • Hall County Sheriff’s Office SROs - 100%
  • Henry County Schools (County police SROs) - 15%
  • Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office SROs - 70%

The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council certifies officers and keeps their training records. Since officers must qualify annually on any weapon they use in law enforcement, open record requests show which school police officers currently have access to rifles.

Atlanta News First Investigates did not try to determine which individual schools have rifle-qualified officers and which don’t. We didn’t seek to publish school-specific data on rifle training for security reasons.

Police officers in the Cherokee County School District and the school resource office unit for the Hall County Sheriff’s department are all qualified to use a patrol rifle. Peachtree City police officers assigned as school resource officers are also 100-percent qualified for patrol rifles.

Of the dozen school districts researched, only Atlanta Public Schools Police and Clayton County Public Schools Police have zero officers currently qualified for patrol rifles.

Other school districts have some rifle-qualified officers. While Cobb County Schools recently chose to arm non-law-enforcement staff members inside schools, 47 percent of the Cobb County School District Police Department do not have rifles (the other 53 percent of Cobb school officers are rifle qualified).

The Fulton County Schools Police Department gives patrol rifles to 34 percent of its officers. The Forsyth County School Resource Officers Program use sheriff’s deputies as SROs and 79 percent of those are rifle qualified, according to the sheriff’s office.

Most departments and officers keep the rifles locked in their patrol cars, while some keep them in safes in the office designated for school resource officers. It’s up to each district.

“The chances of them being in a position to get to the rifle in a decent amount of time is going to be slim,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO).

NASRO recommends the school resource officer to run toward the gunfire and immediately engage the shooter with whatever weapon the officer has. If the rifle is in the other direction, the officer should leave it, according to NASRO.

Some districts across the nation, Canady said, are using special sling bags that conceal a compact rifle that the officer can keep on their person.

Atlanta News First Investigates interviewed NASRO’s Canady inside Hoover High School in Alabama where he patrolled as a school resource officer until 2011.

“This hallway we’re in is at least 100 yards long from one direction to the other,” Canady explained. “Would I prefer to have a long gun in a situation here if I were faced with an active assailant? Absolutely. 100 percent. And the thing that we also have to look at is that many of these active assailants are armed with a long gun.”

Patrol rifles have become standard issue for city police but not school officers

A 1997 shootout in North Hollywood forced a change in city police departments nationwide.

Two heavily armed bank robbers wounded 12 police officers and eight civilians. Los Angeles police (LAPD) were initially armed only with 9mm pistols while engaging the bank robbers, who were armed with multiple rifles. The gunmen also had special ammunition that could penetrate the officers’ soft body armor. They were also wearing heavy body armor the officers’ rounds could not penetrate.

Both bank robbers were eventually killed, but only after the LAPD SWAT team arrived and officers commandeered AR-15s from a local sporting goods shop.

The LAPD began arming patrol officers with rifles immediately following the shootout. Other departments nationwide followed suit so their officers wouldn’t be outgunned by criminals increasingly arming themselves with rifles.

“We don’t ever again in modern policing need a situation where bad guys like the ones in the North Hollywood bank robbery are better armed and better protected than the good guys,” Canady said.

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While some school police departments have all their officers fully armed with rifles, like Cherokee County, districts with school resource officers provided by municipal police departments and county sheriffs’ offices were more likely to have rifle training.

Private schools in Georgia are allowed to have armed security including rifles. Some private schools hire off-duty police officers in uniform to serve as school security. Each private or parochial school makes its own decision on armed security. Those policies are not public record.

Many officers give up their rifle qualification when assigned to schools

Every department reviewed by Atlanta News First Investigates had officers with rifle qualification from their previous employers.

At the Atlanta Public Schools Police, 38 percent of officers who are not currently qualified to use a patrol rifle have lapsed certifications from other agencies. Essentially, these officers gave up their rifles when they began protecting schools.

Sarah Shoop-Neumann and other mothers of children who survived the Covenant School shooting are fighting to keep rifles out of the hands of school shooters. “We need more than damage mitigation,“ she said. “We need prevention. Kids saw their friends dead and they’re nine years old. You don’t get those images out of your head.”

At the same time, their non-profit, Covenant Families for Brighter Tomorrows, is in favor of putting rifles in the hands of school police officers.

“[Officers] are risking their lives, so we need to at least make sure that they’re given the best chance at survival for that,” Shoop-Neumann said.

If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe to look into, email him directly at brendan.keefe@wanf.com.