Teacher, Mentor, Officer of the Law: The Many Hats of the School Resource Officer
Exploring the Role of the SRO in Today's Schools
They’re part teacher and part counselor, with a little bit of social worker thrown in. On any given day in schools across the country, they can be found settling disputes, getting keys out of locked cars, teaching an Internet safety class or complimenting a group of young students on their choice of pajamas for the school’s Pajama Day. And almost always, they are wearing a sidearm.
School Resource Officers (SRO’s) are an increasingly popular additions to the roster of professionals being brought into school districts nationwide to help keep kids safe. Do a quick search on Google and you’ll find news articles about school boards from South Carolina to Texas to North Dakota approving the hiring of a new resource officers for their districts.
The position — a hybrid role combining law enforcement with teaching and mentorship components — slowly gained traction nationwide after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. But with increasing instances of school violence in the U.S. and a call to arm teachers, school resource officers are making news as more districts opt to add them as the first line of defense in the event of an incident.
During the 2015-16 school year, 43 percent of all public schools had an armed officer present at least once a week, according to data from a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a figure that is up over 10 percent from a decade earlier.
"We want our school, our students, our staff to be safe and feel comfortable and they're protected so we can increase their learning,” Eureka Springs (Arkansas) School Superintendent Bryan Pruitt said in a report on KY3, after his school board approved the hiring of a school resource officer for the 2018-19 school year to monitor its three schools. The district wasn’t just hiring a police officer, he added, “but an educator, a counselor, a friend and someone to protect (students)."
What does a School Resource Officer do?
School resource officers are not security guards but sworn officers of the law — many of them retired after years on a local police force — and yes, they carry a sidearm. While there are no specific training requirements, the National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that SRO’s complete a 40-hour course that includes emergency plans for schools, de-escalation techniques, and even some academic work, including studying the adolescent brain. Since most officers are members of their local forces, they also receive the same firearms training as their colleagues.
“They have to be a mentor — a kind, caring, trusting adult, the nice police officer who will give you a high-five and ask you how your day is going,” John McDonald, the security chief for the Jefferson County, Colorado, school district, which includes Columbine High, told The New York Times. “And very quickly they have to become a tactical cop. That switch is not for everybody. The ability to do that is very difficult.”
Resource officers build relationships
Justin Schlottman, a school resource officer at Cedar Crest High School in Pennsylvania, told PBS News Hour that he was surprised during last year’s commencement ceremony when the class president mentioned how the resource officer helped him get his keys out of his locked car. “All I had done was to help him get his keys out of his locked car. To me, it was such a small gesture, but for him it was an emergency. My helping him was so important that it became a highlight of his senior year,” said Schlottman.
“Every student is fighting a daily battle that we know nothing about,” he continued.
“We may think that student behavior at a given moment is driven by something trivial, but it often has much deeper roots than what’s visible on the surface. The key is to build relationships with students before problems arise.”
For Cpl. Pamela Revels, the resource officer at Loachapoka Elementary School near Auburn, Alabama, her daily role can fluctuate between helping a kindergartener who’s dropped his breakfast get new sausage and apple juice; watching a teenager storm out of a Spanish class and getting him back inside after a brief conversation; or going “mama bear” during a school lockdown and patrolling the school’s perimeter after a man carrying a gun was reported in the vicinity.
A school resource officer at the Johnson County School District in Kentucky told WYMT that it was great building relationships with the students. "The kids they come around and shake your hand and laugh with you," he said. "It puts the kids at ease when they come to school."
The bottom line: keeping kids safe
Instead of seeing upticks in arrests, many schools report that having a school resource officer integrated into the campus actually acts as a deterrent. In fact, that same NCES study released this year found that while student and staff fatalities persisted, students reported fewer instances of violence, theft and other abuse during the past decade.
"We have always had a good school culture and a good climate but I think this just adds an extra layer of warmth and security," one Kentucky superintendent said of his district’s resource officer.
Revels — the Alabama resource officer — said she averted a potential attack several years ago after she began monitoring a student who was kicking, pushing and bullying other students. “I went deeper and found writings and drawings that were concerning,” she told The New York Times, and saw to it that the student began mental health treatment.
When it comes to bullying and harassment, whether it’s student-to-student or between students and school personnel, the long-standing MO of avoidance needs to end. Instead, it’s time to flip the script — change our attitudes and behavior and invest in forging a new culture in the classroom and on the playground — one that encourages children to feel safe reaching out and asking for help.
Hiring School Resource Officers is one, generally successful solution that’s gaining popularity at schools. Anonymous reporting apps like STOPit are another.
STOPit is a reporting app that students can download onto their phones, which gives them a simple, straightforward tool to report suspicious behavior -- anonymously-- to their school administrators. Many STOPit schools add School Resources Officers to their account so they can assist students directly through the application and gather evidence for their investigations.
At Bushland ISD in Bushland Texas, SRO Dennis Green is an active user of the STOPit platform. Implementing the platform has allowed more information to come forward to assist him with his investigations. Dennis states that "We find that a lot of students are reporting for their peers. We are a small town and close knit community but if we don’t know about it then we can’t STOPit."
If you would like more information about how STOPit can benefit your school community, contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 855-999-0932.