Police and Our Schools: Exploring the School Resource Officer Program

This post was originally published by MJ on his Linkedin Profile in July of 2015. In light of recent national policy discussions, as well as local discussions specifically pertaining to the implementation of an SRO program, we are re-publishing this piece for greater accessibility.

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Earlier this month*, a task force convened by Governor Chris Christie issued its report and recommendations on school safety in the State of New Jersey. One, major component of the report that has recently garnered media attention is the recommendation that law enforcement officers should be utilized in NJ public school buildings, expanding upon the ideas outlined in the New Jersey Guide to Establishing a Safe School Resource Officer Program in Your Community  (1998) published under Governor Christine Todd Whitman (NJSSTF, 2015 p.8). As a criminal justice major, I have often explored those areas where our justice and education systems intertwine. In this piece, we’ll explore the task force’s recommendations in light of recent research and theories surrounding juvenile delinquency and the communal response.

           The task force traces the close-knit relationship between law enforcement and education professionals back to 1988, when the New Jersey Department of Education and Department of Public Safety formally entered into a partnership to address issues relating to the health and safety of our youth (NJSSTF, 2015). Like many policy measures relating to youth safety, the agreement was spurred by concerns relating to drug and alcohol use among juveniles. From that moment on, law enforcement officers became regular actors in the growing arena of public education. Whether it was through hosting informational programs through the D.A.R.E. curriculum, or assisting in the development of emergency preparedness, our friendly neighborhood policemen and women proved they can bring more than just a sense of security into the schoolhouse.

           As noted by Thompson & Alvarez (2013), our children face a whole host of new issues in our schools, as substance abuse rates continue to rise along with reports of fighting, dating violence, physical & cyber bullying, as well as diagnoses of mental & behavioral issues (p.131). Only recently, and in response to tragic events, have professionals sought to proactively stamp out threats to school safety at their root. Such efforts, however, require not only a change in policy, but an evolution in the relationship between school administrators and law enforcement. Presently, district administrators and local agencies are required to work together in developing security plans and conducting routine drills, a relationship mirrored at the State level by the transition of the Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning (OSPEP)—originally created under the Department of Education in 2009—to the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (OHSP) in 2012 (NJSSTF p.11).

           At the local level, the nature of this relationship and its impact on school safety policies will vary from district to district. Indeed, Cray & Weiler (2011) paint a vivid picture of variations among school safety programs, ranging from contracts with private security organizations to partnerships with local law enforcement. As a reflection of the public they serve, modern trends in community policing have recognized that law enforcement officers serve a far greater role in the lives of our youth than mere disciplinarians, or poster boards for current drug and alcohol policies. As summarized in the report:

Police officers are not simply armed guards for the purpose of a security presence; rather, when used appropriately, they can serve as an integral part of the school community and function as safety experts and law enforcers, problem solvers, and liaisons to community resources, educators, and counselors  (p. 23) (Internal citations omitted).

           That is to say, building upon the established relationship between local law enforcement and school districts offers additional benefits supportive of student development and learning objectives that may not be achieved with private security contractors. Where non-sworn officers or private firms are utilized, the task force recommends consulting with local law enforcement to establish clear parameters for the role with respect to items such as required training and chain of command (NJSSTF p.22).

           Aside from considerations relating to cost, the greatest challenge to the integration of law enforcement into the public school system is often described as the “school to prison pipeline”. As noted in the report,

Simply assigning police to schools as law enforcers can have the unintended effect of exposing youth to the criminal justice system in an adversarial and negative way earlier than they may have otherwise been exposed . . . there is the potential that actions taken by police officers will result in criminalizing behavior that may otherwise have been handled at the school level if not for the intervention of police in schools. (p.23)

           Jay (2002) emphasizes the important role that perception plays at the start of this relationship, elevating the risk for confrontations between law enforcement and juveniles. Likewise, Thompson & Alvarez warn that the presence of police officers in schools may lead to the delegation of disciplinary responsibilities by teachers and administrators (p.132). Consequently, it is the misuse of a School Resource Officer, and not their mere presence, that poses a risk to school climate and culture.

           To this end, Cray & Weiler stress the importance of foundational documents such as a Memorandum of Understanding between school districts and local authorities, clarity in job descriptions and the assignment of duties, and continuity in training and professional development. In this sense, safety is not determined by the number of officers in a building, but the quality of communication between school administrators and public safety officials. Indeed, the priority of an SRO program should be the furtherance of this relationship, as opposed to meting out punishment for juvenile crimes. A spirit of collaboration is essential to overcoming the “school to prison pipeline” quandary; “[o]nce the SRO and the building administrators understand each other’s responsibilities related to school safety, their collaboration and decision making will ensure a safe learning environment for students and staff” (Id. p. 169). Moreover, “[t]o limit school resource officers to the role of law enforcement is not just a waster of available expertise and dwindling resources; the evidence suggests that it may be detrimental to students and the basic objectives of schooling” (Thompson & Alvarez p. 135). Indeed, the best approach to SRO integration is one that emphasizes the spirit of community, and recognizes opportunities for growth and development beyond traditional roles.

Obviously, resource officers can counsel and advise school officials on the physical safety of a facility, train school staff in the best safety practices, and guide students to respond to emergency situations. However, resource officers may also teach students about the law and their respective rights, lead student advisory councils oversee student mediation programs, and cultivate relations with struggling students in need of support (Thompson & Alvarez p. 134)

           As I’ve previously stated, my academic interest in school safety matters was sparked at the collegiate level. As a member of the Student Government Association, campus safety and security became my pet project. In reviving an older committee, originally designed as a sort of watch dog coalition to monitor security practices in the late 90’s, I sought to establish a foundation for this new organization on the principle of respect. Recognizing the integral role that students, faculty, and staff had to play as members of the campus community in establishing timely and consistent communication, that would ultimately improve the quality of our campus environment, our system was predicated on the belief that justice and education systems could co-exist harmoniously. Although these experiences involved a private security agency at a higher level of education, the spirit of collaboration is echoed at the primary and secondary education levels. When utilized properly, sworn officers cease to be mere disciplinarians and develop a personalized bond with community stakeholders that makes them another part of the family. In looking back at my experience with the D.A.R.E. program, it was this communal element (a benefit of growing up in a relatively small town) that made the impact of the program particularly lasting. I may not remember all of the facts and figures presented, but I will always remember “Officer Bob”. Sadly, it is this most crucial element of programmatic success that cannot be legislated, replicated, or bottled up and disseminated.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and in no way reflect upon those organizations or institutions with which he is affiliated.

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*This post was originally published by Michael D. Johnson on July 26, 2015.

References

  1. Cray, M. & Weiler, S.C. (2011). Policy to Practice: A look at national and state implementation of school resource officer programs. “Clearing House”, 84(4), 164-170. Doi:10.1080/00098655.2011.564987.
  2.  Jackson, A. (2002). Police-school resource officers’ and students’ perception of the police and offending. “Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management”, 25(3), pp. 631-650.
  3. New Jersey School Security Task Force. (2015). Report and recommendations. Trenton, NJ: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  4. Thompson, A.M. & Alvarez, M.E. (2013). Considerations for integrating school resource officers into school mental health models. “Children & Schools”, pp. 131-136. Doi:10.1093/cs/cdt009.