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While some find it unsettling or unfortunate to walk onto a school campus and see armed police officers walking around, a better understanding of the roles of School Resource Officers (or SROs) reveals that they are more than just stern defenders looking for bad guys. SROs devote much of their time to building relationships and preventing trouble before it starts.


Another common misconception is that School Resource Officers are just glorified security guards. While some schools do still use unarmed security guards (School Safety Officers), a School Resource Officer is a trained, vetted, and sworn police officer who is a part of a local police force and stationed on a school campus. For budgetary reasons, some districts use a team made up of both security guards and SRO’s. A growing trend is for districts to develop their own fully fleshed out police departments (School Police Officers).


Whatever direction your school has chosen to take, we live in a world in which it is expected that district administrations will provide whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety of their students. While there is a great deal of debate over which of these is the best option, for the sake of this discussion, we will be focusing on the multi-faceted role of the School Resource Officer, though much of this applies to both district police officers and security guards, as well.

A Brief History

Sixty years ago, the thought of having a police officer on every school campus, including Early Childhood Centers, would have been considered ludicrous, obscene, and frivolous, but after the more than 230 school shootings over the last 20 years, including at least eight at elementary schools, parents and leaders (including the president) have advocated for an SRO on every school campus in the country. Let’s take a look at the progression of this movement.

As early as 1948, Los Angeles developed a school police department in order to patrol their schools that had experienced the most changes from implementing integration. Regardless of the intent behind this, many believe that this led to a latent racism found in or at least associated with School Resource Officers.

In 1958 Flint, Michigan began an experimental project focused on improving the relationships between young people and police officers. Police officers were brought in to mentor students, provide counselling, and even to tutor. This program was such a success that it was used as a framework for similar school/police partnerships throughout the US.

By 1972 there were urban schools throughout the nation with policing of some sort on their campuses, and by 1975 1% of schools had a School Resource Officer.

In the early 1980’s it was becoming undeniable that drug use had become an epidemic that was drastically affecting the lives of the nation’s youth, so schools and police forces started to forge alliances to combat this problem. In 1983 the Los Angeles Unified School District developed and implemented the D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance and Education) program for elementary schools, and they trained LAPD officers to provide the instruction. Within 10 years, the D.A.R.E. program had expanded through high school and was being used in schools across the country.

In 1991 the Phoenix, Arizona police department used federal funding to work with local schools to develop a gang prevention and education program that they called G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education and Training). Much like D.A.R.E., this program used trained police officers to teach students life skills they could use to resist the pressures to partake in and join gang activities. The G.R.E.A.T. program was also quickly taken nationwide after finding success in Arizona schools. This program is now overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice and has expanded to Central America.

Since the devastating shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 that captured the attention and fears of the nation, upwards of 30% of the nation’s schools have full-time SROs (some reports have that number up to 57%).

It is important to understand that the role of police officers on school campuses originated as that of a mentor/educator. While the role has expanded to include crime prevention and now to law enforcement, the primary goal of building relationships and mentoring students remains in place. We would be remiss not to acknowledge that the origins and history of the relationship between schools and the police force contain both  admirable and inappropriate facets.

Roles of SROs

The National Association of School Resource Officers reports that:

Researchers at Canada’s Carleton University conducted a two-year study of an SRO program in the Regional Municipality of Peel. In their 2018 report, they concluded that for every dollar invested in the program, a minimum of $11.13 of social and economic value was created. The report lists numerous benefits of the program, including:

  • Prevention or minimization of property damage in the school and surrounding areas.
  • Prevention of student injuries and even death due to violence, drug overdoses, etc.
  • Reduction of the need for schools to call 911.
  • Reduction of the likelihood that a student will get a criminal record.
  • Increase of the likelihood that students (particularly those with mental health issues) will get the help they need from the social service and health care systems.
  • Increase in feelings of safety among students and staff.

In order to accomplish such an array of things, School Resource Officers wear many different hats. Some of their commonly accepted tasks include being visible and patrolling the campus to ensure that the campus is secure, providing crowd supervision and control at extracurricular events, and detaining and even arresting a student should one break the law.

SROs are also key to the development and implementation of school safety plans. While no one likes to think about the possibility of either a natural disaster, a hostile student, or violent intruder, police officers are trained and attend regular updates in creating optimal safety plans. Though no plan is perfect or foolproof, and every crisis is truly unique, more is learned with each tragic event that occurs on a school campus.

School Resource Officers are called upon if there is a dispute on campus. While administrators frequently break up fights, it is very helpful to have an officer available to help restrain when the student in question is irrational and resisting. Often times a verbal altercation can be intercepted before it turns physical, but if the parties cannot be reasoned with, then a trained officer with experience in dispute mediation and knowledge of the law can be a great asset.

On occasion, a student may be suspected of possession of a stolen item or an illegal substance. If there is reasonable suspicion, the student’s person, bags and lockers will need to be searched. If done voluntarily, this search can be done by an administrator with a witness present in which case the student will turn out their pockets, shoes and socks, but if there is resistance, an officer will conduct the search which will involve a pat down. 

While programs like D.A.R.E. and G.R.E.A.T. have been incredibly effective, presentations led by a School Resource Officer with whom students have already built trust and relationship is a great advantage. Officers can also provide presentations on anti-bullying; the dangers of smoking and vaping in adolescents; and internet safety, digital citizenship, cyberbullying and the legal ramifications of sexting.

Alternative to School Resource Officers

The viability and credibility of SROs has been under a tremendous amount of scrutiny lately. It is undeniable that a disproportionate number of students of color are being suspended and arrested in schools across the country, and many trace this back to the role police officers played in the integration of schools in the 1960’s along with the accounts of racial profiling scandalizing police forces throughout the nation. Additionally, while there are many examples of SROs intercepting potential threats, some have been criticized for their lack of effectiveness in preventing the tragedies that have occurred.

There are activists proposing that rather using money budgeted for security to fund the presence of School Resource Officers, those funds could be used to employ school psychologists, social workers, crisis counselors and other preventative programs in an effort to impede and prevent situations from getting to a crisis point that could potentially result in tragedy. While it is becoming increasingly obvious that schools need to provide these services, there is no way that all potential threats could be averted through these measures.

An alternative adopted by some schools has been to train and arm teachers. The NASRO states the following regarding teachers carrying guns:

NASRO strongly recommends that no firearms be on a school campus except those carried by carefully selected, specially trained school resource officers, who are by definition (see above) active, sworn law enforcement officers. There are several reasons for this recommendation:

  • Law enforcement officers who respond to an incident at a school could mistake for an assailant a teacher or any other armed person who is not in a uniform.
  • Anyone who hasn’t received the extensive training provided to law enforcement officers will likely be mentally unprepared to take a life, especially the life of a student assailant.
  • Firearm skills degrade quickly, which is why most law enforcement agencies require their officers to practice on a shooting range frequently (as often as once per month), under simulated, high-stress conditions. Anyone without such frequent, ongoing practice will likely have difficulty using a firearm safely and effectively.
  • In addition to maintaining marksmanship, ongoing firearms practice helps law enforcement officers overcome the physiological response to stress than can reduce the fine motor skills required to accurately fire a weapon.
  • Anyone who possesses a firearm on campus must be able to keep it both ready for use and absolutely secure. Law enforcement officers receive training that enables them to overcome attempts to access their weapons.
  • Discharging a firearm in a crowded school is an extremely risky action, with consequences that can include the wounding and/or death of innocent victims. Law enforcement officers receive training and practice in evaluating quickly the risks of firing. They hold their fire when the risks to others are too high.
  • Concluding Thoughts

    One of writers has witnessed firsthand how a caring SRO at a high school campus can help heal and restore relationships between police officers and students. This officer has at least 10 secret (and quite complicated) handshakes with students. One student who has had several unfortunate encounters with law enforcement throughout her life finds this officer to be the person who she trusts the most on campus. When she has an outburst, he is the one called in to calm her down, and when her friend was tragically killed, this SRO is the one who was able to hold her as she sobbed. 

    In this same district, an SRO housed at an elementary campus has worked tirelessly off the clock soliciting friends and community members to donate coats and for the students she sees walking into the school shivering in the winter. She then collected Christmas presents for several families who would not have had a Christmas without her intervention. 

    Both of these officers could be making considerably more on a traditional police force and have to work off duty security jobs to make up for their lack of a suitable salary. But they choose to work at a school because they care about the students.

    As with all positions in a school, the most important part about staffing a position like a School Resource Officer is to find the right fit: someone who is a combination of strong ethics, good training, and a heart for young people.

    Resources

    For more information regarding the history and roles of School Resource Officers, consider the following resources, many of which were used in developing this post:


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