Putting the “Resource” in “School Resource Officer”

middle school kidsIt is such a contrast.

At the last stop in my public school career, I led a campus with a high school, a middle school, and two elementary schools. It was a rare opportunity as some of those were brand new places, and we had the chance to truly create the culture.

At the campus, we had a school resource officer – a law enforcement officer working in the school. Though SROs are expressly prohibited from acting as school disciplinarians, they may serve in a variety of roles in schools, including law enforcement officer, law-related educator, problem-solver, and community liaison.

In one case, the school resource officer (SRO) was an integral architect of inventing a “kids first” climate. In a second case, the school resource officer was a one-man demolition crew. The first SRO went the plainclothes route. He was a listener, an observer, an analyst. He was in the cafeteria and hallways, just “hanging out” with open ears. He wandered the bleachers at ballgames and showed up for music concerts – just “hanging out” and listening. That style paid dividends. I am convinced he saved two students who were contemplating suicide. He broke up a major boutique drug ring operating from a highly prestigious school in Louisville. And in so many ways, he was the best counselor I have ever seen in a school. So by definition of the word “resource,” he was truly an asset.

Ah, but then he left to join a better paying police force and in came SRO #2. Within three days, he had fermented referrals for youth for small things that he thought were “major crimes” ranging from “running in the hall” to sneaking in a soft drink to a ballgame. I pretty quickly realized that his best contribution was to monitor the football field – when no one was on it – and to safeguard a neighboring fire station “just in case some of our students wandered over there.”

Same school. Same students. Same SRO contract. Antithetical results.

It’s important to remember that kind of yin and yang when it comes to SROs given the spate of recent news in Northern Kentucky and Jefferson County. That yin and yang also characterizes the discussion about SROs. There are those convinced that SROs are the “last line of defense” when it comes to school safety. There are others who are convinced that SROs do little to protect schools—but do a lot in terms of creating and sustaining a toxic school environment and increasing the rate of racial disproportionality when it comes to school discipline.

The first SRO with whom I ever worked was in 1975, and having worked with SROs in poverty-ridden urban schools, affluent suburban schools, and the most rural of rural schools, I simply don’t believe anyone should make sweeping generalizations. And let’s be honest – SROs are the reality in our local schools whether you like or dislike the concept.

So as another school year begins across the Commonwealth, how do we ensure that SROs—all 260 of them throughout Kentucky—are assets when it comes to supporting kids?

Two of the educators I most admire are Dr. Leon Mooneyhan, CEO of the Ohio Valley Education Consortium, and Dale Brown, a Kentucky Youth Advocates Board member and administrator at Western Kentucky University. Both were esteemed superintendents, and both offer pragmatic ideas on making SROs part of the solution rather than the core of the problem. Mooneyhan asserts, “SRO’s have the ability to be friends with youth. To be a RESOURCE. They should build relationships…then when safety is an issue, the SRO is there. The school district should develop a defined understanding of the role of the SRO.”

Brown adds, “Developing a relationship with the law enforcement agency early on is the key. Each entity supports the other…and planning is the key. Planning together…it has to be a team approach.”

If Leon and Dale are exemplars when it comes to school leadership, a thought leader in this state when it comes to law enforcement is Louisville’s Police Chief Steve Conrad. Whether it is dealing with community violence prevention or a crisis at hand, Chief Conrad is as insightful and ethical as he is professional and innovative. So I asked him for his thoughts on SROs, and as expected, he proffered a response that was focused and student-oriented. His points included:

  • First, it is impossible to measure what DOESN’T happen because of an SROs presence. They can prevent situations from turning into problems.
  • Having the right people with the right tools as SROs is CRITICAL. Any officer can come into a school to “police,” but to be effective, the SRO needs to really care for the kids whom they serve.
  • SROs have no business being disciplinarians. Period! SROs should never be involved in the enforcement of school rules.
  • The biggest missed opportunity is to use SROs to develop stronger relationships between youth and law enforcement.

The Chief concluded his thoughts by saying, “We would love the chance to be more actively involved in classrooms and to be seen as a valued member of the school’s staff rather than a security guard with arrest powers.”

SROs can be an unfortunate catalyst to the much discussed “school to prison pipeline” if they are seen as a “security guard with arrest powers,” if they are involved in school discipline, and if they see their job as policing rather than caring for kids. Or, they can be some of the most effective and unique student advocates for which any school could hope.

All too often, generalizations either support SROs without questions or call for a total elimination of the SRO program. Neither position will get us where we should be for kids. The assessment of SROs comes down to a case-by-case basis. If you are reading this blog, then you should be asking your superintendent and law enforcement leader:

  1. How are SROs chosen? How are they evaluated, and by whom?
  2. What training is a prerequisite, and what training is provided as ongoing support?
  3. What protocols are in place as to the role of the SRO in our schools, and how are those protocols monitored? How are these made public?
  4. What does success look like to the school system and to the law enforcement agency? What are the outcomes associated with success, and how can those be made public?

Leon Mooneyhan, Dale Brown, and Steve Conrad have asked these questions and carefully considered how SROs can truly be a resource for kids in Kentucky. But none of them remember being cloned, so kids in your community are counting on you to be asking those questions on their behalf before an SRO horror story headline comes to your hometown.