Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: Sep 12 2022
Last Edit: Sep 12 2022
(20 min read)
Imagine this: You’re a high school teacher who has just started homeroom. It is a normal school day and you’re about to begin taking attendance when you notice that your class seems restless. All of a sudden you realize that one of your students is whispering frantically on the phone, completely disregarding your no phone policy. As the teacher, you feel annoyed and disrespected, but you don’t even have time to recognize these feelings before the door to your classroom explodes open. Before you know it, a girl who you have never seen before is on top of your student, and the whole class has broken into chaos. You freeze and feel completely unable to control the situation. By now, several other teachers and students have appeared to look in on the spectacle. After what feels like eternity, another teacher is able to defuse the situation, both girls are escorted away, and the police are called. You later learn that the girl who attacked your student is not even a student at the school. To your horror, you realize that she was able to enter the school without a problem, and that no one is there to secure the school from incidents like this.
The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) reports that there are currently about 14,000-20,000 SROs within schools across the country. Including both public and private schools, it is estimated that approximately 20% of schools in the United States have SROs (NASRO, n.d.). SROs are law enforcement officers who are placed in schools in order to enhance student safety and to protect the school’s property. As stated by the NASRO (2012), the role of these individuals is to: enforce the law, mentor students, and teach.
There has been growing criticism of SROs within schools in recent years, though, partly due to incidents that have occurred between SROs and students (Ryan et al., 2018). For me, the most prominent example of this is an incident that occurred with an SRO and a female student in South Carolina, where an SRO was filmed using excessive physical force against a female student who refused to give up her cell phone. Concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline , unclear roles (officers dealing with student misbehavior), and lack of training figure prominently in discussions about police officers being in schools. Among many different courses of action taken to resolve this problem, there recently has been a movement to remove SROs from schools in several places. As one officer mentions in their interview, Arlington, Virginia is one location that chose this course of action. The response to this controversy has been varied, and some schools have decided to remove their SROs, while others have opted to keep them.
Related to these criticisms, some solutions have been offered to remedy the current problem with police officers in schools, including avoiding the use of SROs to handle student misconduct, and improving the training of SROs to include topics such as behavior management, child development, communication techniques, and disability awareness. Another potential solution includes creating a memorandum of understanding in order to specify the roles and responsibilities of SROS (Ryan et al., 2018). While solutions have been discussed, it seems that this problem is far from being resolved. In order to gain a better understanding of the controversies around this topic, as well as possible solutions to the problems related to their roles, I decided to have conversations with several SROs regarding their unique perspectives.
What follows are the answers provided by active-duty SROs to my questions about their work. Their responses have been lightly edited.
I worked with the SRO unit on two occasions, first as an officer and then later as a supervisor. As an officer, I was drawn to the role of working in the schools, since it would be more of a non traditional space where I could get to know members of the community, and I really enjoyed working with high school kids. I had great opportunities to mentor and get to know them, and it was an environment where you could see a positive impact. I also appreciated that it allowed younger children to meet police officers and see them as people, vs a scary entity.As a supervisor, I was recruited to return to the unit because I had experience working in that nontraditional role, and it’s important to have persons managing that unit who understand the unique relationships we maintain with the school and the community.
Prior to joining the police department, I worked full time and went to school full time. One of the jobs I had was that of a Hispanic Parent Liaison for a High School in Fairfax County. Long story short, I came to admire the work of the SRO assigned to that High School. After becoming a police officer, I was fortunate enough to get a temporary assignment as a fill-in SRO at a middle school sometime in 1999-2000. I was the school SRO for almost one year. I took a promotional exam, was promoted and remained at the school as the full-time SRO. I later served as an SRO at several other schools. I left the SRO unit in 2010 when I got promoted to the rank of Sergeant. I later returned to the unit as a supervisor, overseeing the SROs. I loved the assignment. It was a great opportunity to work with different people outside of law enforcement. I believe that has helped me throughout my career. I enjoyed working with and helping kids, staff, teachers, principals, parents, juvenile probation officers, child protection workers, and others involved with our youth. Overall, the SRO experience was very rewarding both professionally and personally. I am a much better person, officer, and leader because of that assignment.
I retired after 28 years in law enforcement and was offered this position through a retired police officer friend. I really enjoy working here- I love the school administration and the interaction with the middle school kids.
I think SROs became a proxy for a lot of other criticisms of police and society and took a lot of unfair negative publicity. Locally, a great deal of connection was made between the presence of an SRO and disproportionate discipline for minorities. While the disproportionate discipline was (and still is) a problem, the SROs weren’t a part of that process – it is an administrative process handled by school personnel. However, once that association was made, no amount of facts could change public opinion. Our school district did a survey of the student population where only 8% of students held a negative image of SROs (and 27% didn’t know they had them!), yet a small and very vocal group managed to effectively portray the SROs as intimidating the entire school population. The environment was demoralizing, especially when the Superintendent made statements we knew to be false yet felt powerless to counter.
Public criticism of the law enforcement profession is not new and concerns regarding officers in schools falls in line with historical criticism within the profession. I believe in community policing and recognize the importance of engaging with the community to ensure professional law enforcement services are aligned with best practices and meet the values and expectations of our community. My personal belief is that the SRO program was a success because the School Division and Police were bold and innovative; working to put officers in schools to build a strong relationship with our communities of color. The SROs were important members of their school communities, often wearing multiple hats as coaches, mentors, and allies. During the 2020 - 2021 school year, there was increased scrutiny across the country of police, including within our community. As a result, the School Division decided to review their relationship and operations with SROs and ultimately decided to no longer have police in schools. Regardless, the SROs I supervised and I all felt very strongly that the SRO programs was having a positive impact on the community, students, parents, and relationships was positive.
I don’t like the criticisms of the SROs. We are trying to do the job and protect the children and staff each and every day. Almost all SROs are retired law enforcement and are used to public criticism. It doesn’t bother me because I know that we are needed and we do our absolute best. Sometimes we lose our lives not only to make a difference, but to protect the children and staff. Where I work, myself, along with the other SROs, are appreciated by the higher up administration, faculty, and student body.
Undoubtedly. I want an SRO at my child’s school. There’s a very simple answer, and that’s just to look at social media and see the extreme spike in violent incidents that students are filming and uploading without consequence. The schools are not reporting these to the police, but kids are getting hurt, and there are no consequences.
Having SROs present and actively engaged in the schools definitely made the schools safer, in my opinion. I would argue that in my community, the program was working. I recognize there are always opportunities to make things better but truly believe the program was working and making a positive impact.There was criticism, both nationally and locally, about the role of SROs in student discipline as well as their involvement in arresting youth. In my community, there was a clear, defined agreement between the School District and Police that student discipline was the responsibility of the school, not the SROs. Arrest statistics also demonstrated that SROs were not arresting students at significant levels nor feeding a school-to-prison pipeline. SROs embodied the principles of community policing and worked to build positive police-youth bonds which are vital to public safety. The basic fact is that I heard from students, staff, parents, and community members who all felt safer because of the relationships that SROs had built over 50 years of service in the schools. SROs were mentors, coaches, and allies to all who were working to provide a safe and nurturing environment for students to learn in.
Yes, the schools are much safer with us. Most SROs are armed and can neutralize a threat long before law enforcement can arrive. The amount of injuries, and loss of life can be halted because most police departments are minutes away from the school. Does anyone realize how much damage can be done in two to three minutes with one or two armed perpetrators in a school? Now it should be noted that not all SROs may be armed, but most if not all, have portable radios to the local departments and are an extra set of eyes and ears to call in the threat.
Disclaimer – until I was promoted out of the unit I was a member of NASRO, and I appreciate the very good work they’ve done over the years to promote the roles of SROs and try to educate the public on what they offer. I agree with that, but I would add that the SRO serves in a unique place as an adviser to the school administration for safety and security – they manage traffic plans for both vehicles and pedestrians, they plan for security at events. And they do more than enforce the law, they are investigations, not just of incidents, but working in off hours to follow up on threats, social media posts, mental health emergencies, violence (threatened or real). On top of that, many of our SROs coach sports, and bring leadership to the kids. So, I agree with the NASRO description, but there is so much more.
Much like police across our country, SROs wear many hats. As an SRO, me and my colleagues were coaches, mentors, instructors, role models, substance abuse teachers, counselors, and social workers…oh and police on occasion😊 We often worked closely with school principals becauseSROs bring another set of skills that are very helpful to school administrators. SROs, like many police officers, are trained to handle all manners of emergency incidents and have the training to address anything from an active fire, lost child, active violence incident, and a natural disaster. However, there are circumstances in some jurisdictions where SROs are too often asked to assume the role of another administrator and/or become involved with discipline. Any good SRO program needs a clear Memorandum of Understanding that clearly identifies, establishes, and defines the responsibilities, roles, and expectations of the school and police. Communities must also identify what they want from police officers in schools. For instance, some schools just want an armed presence as they believe a school shooting is less likely to occur with a police officer present while others want to have officers who are performing community policing and engaging with the school community. It’s important these job functions are clearly identified to ensure the school is getting the right kind of police officer. My desire for my community would have been to examine the SRO position to see what and where we could improve. There has been some criticism about all the hats that police officers wear and a push to increase Substance Abuse Counselors, Social Workers, Mental Health workers in schools. These services are essential to the wellbeing of our students and access should be increased but I believe there is still a role for officers to play within schools as well.
It is not our job to mentor or teach students, although we are more than happy to interact and assist them with any of their needs. We are here to protect them, and keep discipline when a teacher or faculty member is not around or able to do so. It’s the parents, teachers, and the administration’s job to teach and mentor them. My other roles are hallway monitoring and checking on vandalism, which usually occurs in the bathrooms. I monitor the campus through camera surveillance and assist with the bus pickups three times a day, making sure that they are safe from anyone on the outside, and enforcing discipline as they enter the buses.
I think we are already seeing the pendulum swing on this as parents realize they were misled. Schools have already started returning SROs to their former role, but a lot of damage is done. With Police departments struggling to recruit and retain officers it may take years to undo a rash decision and reestablish relationships. A change in messaging by school administrators is critical – they need to publicly embrace SROs as a partner and defend the relationship rather than let the decision be made by a small percentage of the community.
In my community, the School District ultimately decided to remove police officers from schools. While the decision was disappointing, the police department and the school district continue the longstanding relationship and identify ways to benefit students and staff. For instance, at the beginning of each school year, the police department conducts a high-visibility transportation safety campaign to ensure the trip back to the classroom is as safe as possible.Youth in our community are still in need of police services so it was important for us to reimagine youth engagement following the end of the SRO Unit. As a result, a new Youth Outreach Unit was developed to proactively engage youth through community-based outreach strategies that focus on education and relationship-building, and encourage positive youth development. Officers assigned to the Unit work collaboratively with other Government agencies, including the courts system, and community organizations that work with youth to engage with them through community-based activities and programs. Over the summer, the Unit hosted five successful week-long summer camps and will continue to develop other initiatives to make a positive impact with youth in the community.
The SROs must stay in place. It’s a different world now, and safer with the safety officers. Just as many people and organizations do not like to be profiled and stereotyped, it is not fair to do that to the SROS because of unfortunate incidents that have happened at the hands of law enforcement officers. Don’t remove a positive asset to the school districts over situations that have nothing to do with not only other law enforcement officers, but primarily the SROs. The very few negative incidents that have taken place within law enforcement should not outweigh the many possibilities the SROs can, and are, fulfilling!
Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.
Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology
Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.
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