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Word on the Beat: School Resource Officer

In wake of nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death, role of school police is questioned

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On June 2, the Minneapolis School Board voted unanimously to sever its ties with the city’s police department, which had provided training and oversight for its armed school resource officers. The decision came in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a city police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest. Several officers involved in the incident now face felony charges. Floyd’s death set off a chain of nationwide protests of his death and police treatment of black people. Here’s what you need to know about SROs in the nation’s public schools.

What it means: The definition and assigned duties of a school resource officer (SRO) can vary widely, although many schools — particularly at the secondary level – have some version of the staff position. In certain districts, schools call anyone on campus with security responsibilities the SRO, and many are unarmed. At the other end of the spectrum, some states require SROs to undergo the same police academy training as sworn peace officers. That was the case in Minneapolis, where the school board announced June 2 it was cutting its ties to the city’s police force in response to the death of George Floyd during an arrest. The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that the term “SRO” be used only when referring to sworn law enforcement officers who are affiliated with a police department or public safety agency, and have received specialized training to work in schools (the federal Department of Justice advises similarly).*

Why it matters: SROs are an important piece of the national debate over school safety. In 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal STOP School Violence Act, authorizing $50 million annually for school safety through 2028. An additional $25 million would be allocated to help “harden” schools against potential shooters, including with armed guards. (The bill doesn’t call for arming teachers, although the language doesn’t prohibit districts from using federal funds to do so.) It’s important to note that not all school resource officers are armed. And in many districts, the presence of SROs has been attributed to improved campus climate. Akil Hamm, police chief of Baltimore City Public Schools, told an audience at EWA’s 2019 National Seminar that his officers focus on building trust among students. “When you do that, kids come to us. They tell us, ‘Hey, so and so has a gun. There’s going to be a fight at this place, at this time. This person is posting stuff on social media,’” Hamm said. “When you have a relationship with kids and they trust you, they want to tell you.”

Who’s talking about it: The tension over having armed police on public schools campuses isn’t new but it’s moved back into the spotlight amid the recent massive public protests. In Denver, school leaders are launching conversations about the role of police in the city’s schools, spurred in part by the protests, reported Chalkbeat. And the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions are both calling for an overhaul of police practices nationwide, and an end to providing law enforcement with military supplies, including school police. At the same time, some lawmakers have called for an increase in armed guards at public schools. A federal task force on school safety — which included U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — encouraged districts to bring in more SROs. It’s worth noting that the SRO assigned to Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was criticized for not entering the school immediately following the first reports of shots being fired in February 2018. Seventeen people died in the shooting and another 25 were seriously injured.

How many schools have SROs? No one knows for sure, in part because there’s no federal requirement that districts or states keep track, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. However, a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that 30 percent of public schools — close to 30,000 campuses — reported having at least one part-time or full-time SRO. The U.S. Department of Justice currently provides guidance and resources to local districts for SROs who, in addition to fulfilling law enforcement duties, “serve as educators, emergency managers, and informal counselors.”

Want to know more? Take a look at EWA’s resources on school climate and safety. At EWA’s 2019 National Seminar, experts discussed the financial and emotional toll of school security. In 2018, Education Week conducted the first-ever nationwide survey of school resource officers, and found that one out of every five respondents said they did not believe they were adequately prepared for an active shooter. Writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell looked at the stats on SROs in Ohio. In a 2018 takeout, The New York Times profiled SROs in several states, and looked at the complexities of the job duties. “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,” said John McDonald, the security chief for the Jefferson County school district in Colorado, according to 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.”

*This post was updated to reflect the recommendation of the NASRO.