Over the past 20 years, police officers have become commonplace in America’s schools, and a key component in making them safer.
That’s quite a change. Not so long ago, it was alarming for parents to see a police officer on a public school campus. Seeing a marked patrol vehicle out front, parents assumed there was an emergency in progress. This is understandable; we have seen heartbreaking, bloody and violent incidents in our schools in recent decades. From bullying that has been the catalyst for many teen suicides to children finding themselves under attack by adults or students armed with guns, knives and, in some cases, explosives, violence is much more commonplace today in our schools. Moreover, we’re all more aware of it thanks to a ceaseless news cycle and social media.
Our society and needs have changed—and therefore so has the role of the officer assigned to protect a school campus.
True Community Service
Some critics believe a school resource officer (SRO) is assigned to the school to “babysit” kids, or that they are only there to engage an active shooter. Both are simply not true. In many ways, the SRO policing methods get us back to the basics of developing relationships and solving problems.
In fact, I’d argue there is no greater example of the Community Policing Model than the SRO. Their patrol area is their assigned school. The citizens of this community are the students and the teachers who make the school their home each day. In fact, these individuals often spend more waking hours at the school campus than they do in their own homes. Therefore, there is a real need to keep them safe while at school.
There is no greater example of the Community Policing Model than the SRO.
The SRO walking the campus is akin to the cop of yesteryear walking the beat. The beat cop knows the grocer, the barber and the mayor. On campus, the SRO knows the students, the teachers, the parents and the administrators. Knowing the citizens in our communities is an incredibly effective policing technique. By working in the school, the SRO is uniquely positioned to know the members of the campus community.
The job of an SRO, done correctly, is not easy. However, a successful SRO also experiences rich rewards, from building relationships to being part of a team and a process that creates an environment for positive change. SROs develop meaningful relationships across the campus community, from students to teachers and administrators to parents and extended families. A good SRO becomes a bulwark of that school community
I’ve witnessed some amazing and heart-warming successes in the SRO program. I’ve seen students invite their SROs into their class group photos because they feel the officer is such a big part of their school experience. SROs have been invited to the graduations of former at-risk students. Some have even attended the weddings of former students. These students often credit their own success with the example set by an SRO who was genuinely interested in getting the student on the right track.
It’s in the Name
“Resource” by definition is “a source of supply or support,” and that concept is built into the SRO’s title. Not only is the SRO a resource for the school and its students, they also serve as a hub to connect students to community resources.
Although SROs work closely with students and school administrators, they are also a valuable resource for other police officers or agencies working with students who are crime victims or suspects in a criminal matter. Knowing the students, and some of their specific strengths and challenges, the SRO will also work closely with other government agencies such as juvenile probation departments and child protective services and may also assist with truancy matters.
Some students have a rough home life. I have seen students who have negative perceptions of police officers because their only experience with law enforcement is watching their handcuffed family member be taken away in the back of a police vehicle. Other students may have a role model at home who speaks negatively about law enforcement.
These perceptions can be changed by an effective and caring SRO. When students get to know the person behind the badge, they begin to understand the role of police officers in a different light. This is especially true when an SRO is fair and consistent when dealing with students. Many students will report crimes, which might otherwise go unreported, to a police officer they trust. It is not unusual for an SRO to be the initial reporting point for sexual abuse or other abhorrent crimes against a student that happen away from the campus.
Research indicates most individuals who plot or plan to attack a school, especially student perpetrators, tell someone else about their intentions before it happens. A successful SRO builds a relationship of trust with the students on campus, which can lead to more early reporting of these threats.
Another benefit to a successful SRO program is that SROs get to know their school’s physical layout in the event of an actual incident at the school. They also become a resource for tactical teams that need to train in their area schools for active shooter scenarios.
Selection and Assignment
The ability to work closely with school administrators and to work independently is paramount. The SRO understands the difference between school policy and criminal law and is uniquely positioned to recognize when they overlap. The last thing parents want to see is a school rule violation turn into a criminal arrest record for their child.
For instance, the successful SRO knows full well the school’s role is that of “in loco parentis,” which is Latin for “in the place of a parent.” School officials often must make decisions to act in the best interest of their students in the absence of the parent. Although an SRO works closely with school administrators, the in locos parentis doctrine does not necessarily extend to the SRO, especially when it comes to search and seizure. The successful SRO understands the bright line of their enforcement authority, boundaries associated with individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights, and how to follow their employer’s policies. They also understand how they complement the school’s unique authority, not circumvent it.
Kids are in school to learn. When they feel unsafe, students are distracted from their education. A successful SRO plays an integral part, in a collective effort, to provide students and teachers the safe learning environment they require and deserve.
- Vossekuil B, Fein R, Reddy M et al. (July 2004) The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education. Retrieved 10/6/19 from https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf.