Promoting School Safety with a Badge and a Smile

By John Rosales

If school staff across the nation have one thing in common, it is that they will take all measures to keep students safe. Whatever it takes. After several high-profile incidents of school violence in the late 1990s in places like West Paducah, Kentucky (1997), Springfield, Oregon (1998), Jonesboro, Arkansas (1998), and Littleton, Colorado (1999), schools have taken whatever steps necessary to improve school safety.

Schools continue to be very secure places for students, but violence and emergency situations still pose serious challenges. Counseling, peer mediation, and conflict resolution should be key components of any school safety program, but so-called “hard” responses are sometimes necessary. These include metal detectors, surveillance cameras, evacuation drills, and allowing police officers to work on campus.

Known as School Resource Officers (SROs), they are certified, academy-trained officers of the law assigned by the local police department or sheriff’s office or other law enforcement agency to serve fulltime at a public school.

Over the past two decades, the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of sworn police officers assigned to schools, according to Brad Myrstol, an assistant professor with the Alaska Justice Center in Anchorage and author of the report, Police in Schools: Public Perceptions.

In his study, Myrstol states that in the late 1990s approximately a third of local police and sheriffs’ departments employed SROs. By 2003, an estimated 43 percent of local police departments and 47 percent of sheriffs’ departments in the United States employed full-time SROs.

Roughly 80 percent of police departments and 73 percent of sheriffs’ offices serving jurisdictions of 100,000 or more residents maintain an SRO program. In cities with populations between 250,000 and 499,999 residents, Myrstol found that more than 90 percent of departments employ full-time SROs. In 2010, local police and sheriffs’ departments employ an estimated 20,000 SROs.

In most cases, SROs are required to perform law enforcement activities like investigating crimes, apprehending criminal suspects, and acting as first responders in the event of emergencies on campus and in the immediate area.

A greater presence of these officers and other so-called “hard responses” in schools does have potential drawbacks – specifically a concern that the nation’s schools are being turned into makeshift prisons, instead of learning communities. The National Education Association believes that all educa­tion employees, parents/guardians, stu­dents, school governing boards, and com­munity members s must work cooperatively to establish and maintain student safety. NEa also believes the most effective strategies focus on prevention, counseling, and conflict resolution. SROs, says Myrstol, can make a significant contribution to these efforts.

“Officers are also expected to educate students about the law and crime prevention, as well as the profession of policing,” says Myrstol. “They are also supposed to mentor students.”

The multi-roles played by SROs was enough for the federal government to fund the program through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The COPS in Schools grant program began in 1999 aimed at improving school safety while building collaborative partnerships between police agencies with schools. Between 1999 and 2005, more than $750 million was awarded to more than 3,000 agencies to hire SROs. Almost $23 million more was provided for SRO and administrator training. The COPS office has awarded an additional $11.5 million through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative and the Office of Justice Programs’ Gang Reduction Project.

Myrstol focused his research in Anchorage while working closely with the Anchorage Police Department and Anchorage School District (ASD), which has 18 SROs on duty this school year assigned mostly to the district’s eight high schools and 10 middle schools.

“These officers have become a true part of our instructional teams and our students go to them for a myriad of reasons,” says Carol Comeau, ASD superintendent. “They are mentors and role models first and foremost, then enforcers.”

Comeau is quick to point out that SROs do not discipline students, “but they definitely have been a visible deterrent and have acted as counselors and friends to many students and staff.”

At Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, the SRO has an advice column in the school newspaper and an office next to the principal. He is also a school alum.

“Our SRO went through special training in order to work at the school,” says Tim Parker, head of the English department at Lathrop. “Seeing a police officer patrolling at school will make students think twice about whether this is a good place to exchange drugs or misbehave. He can tell you what the law says about bullying, too.”

“He interacts well with the kids,” says Parker, an NEA board member. “He’s serious, but light enough not to bust them for every little thing.”

NEA School Safety Resources for Educators