Kevin Wren was working as a school resource officer (SRO) at a South Carolina high school in the early 2000s when he was called to the assistant principal’s office. Two female students were involved in an altercation about a boy—could the SRO help the girls mediate their way to a peaceful resolution?
But the violence only escalated when the two girls tried to talk it out. “We’re in the middle of the mediation, this girl flips out—next thing I know, she and I are both through the sheetrock wall in the assistant principal’s office,” Wren recalls of the incident. “So, we get up, we dust off…and I told her, ‘Jessica, you and I are going to become real close.’”
And become close they did. Jessica, who was also struggling in school, was initially resistant, but Wren began escorting her to every single class, every single school day.
“And from that day forward for about two weeks, I walked her every day to every one of her classes,” he says. “We built a relationship. It was great to watch her go from failing, and this huge issue over some boy—and she wound up graduating on time.”
Wren, who now serves as director of risk, security, and emergency management for Rock Hill School District in South Carolina, says he keeps a picture of Jessica on his desk to remind him of the impact SROs have on students’ lives.
“I’m not a former SRO, I’m a recovering SRO,” he quips. “Because once you’ve got it, and you’re there with the kids and you know it’s the right thing to do, you just miss that interaction.”
The role. SROs are involved in more than just law enforcement—experts say that role is a tertiary one compared to the education and relationship building that SROs participate in at schools across the United States, ultimately impacting the lives of students.
Recent events have highlighted the role of SROs, both for better and for worse. During the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and faculty were killed, a sheriff’s deputy working as an SRO was lambasted for remaining outside the school building during the shooting—rather than going inside and responding to the threat.
On the flipside, an SRO at a high school in southern Maryland was praised for quickly intervening when a male student opened fire in the hallway, injuring two students in March 2018. Though it was the shooter who ended up taking his own life, the actions of the SRO were credited with eliminating the threat to those inside the school.
SROs are sworn law enforcement, in uniform and with a weapon, who are usually assigned to work in a school environment fulltime—though states as well as school districts across the United States have varying degrees of SRO involvement on their campuses. The SROs are assigned by their local police department and directly report to those agencies.
Some states are highly regulated when it comes to the role and involvement of the SRO—others rely heavily on local law enforcement bodies to assist when needed, but don’t necessarily have a fulltime officer interacting with the students and staff.
In New Jersey, former Governor Chris Christie mandated a legislative task force to draft guidance for law enforcement representatives in schools in 2015.
“The recommendation was that there should be a school resource officer stationed in every school,” says Kevin Craig, school safety specialist at High Point Regional High School District who served on the task force.
Craig, a retired New Jersey police chief and member of the ASIS International School Safety and Security Council, says that while the recommendation is ideal in theory, there aren’t always enough resources to staff an SRO at each campus.
“Reasonably and realistically, implementing that, with costs and benefits and everything else, can become cumbersome for many police departments and schools, particularly because there are more than 600 school districts in the state of New Jersey,” he notes.
As a solution, the state came up with a new category of law enforcement officer—called a Class Three Special Law Enforcement Officer (SLEO)—in lieu of an SRO.
“Class three officers are retired police officers who have to go through the same school resource officer training that traditional SROs would have to go through,” Craig explains. “So, it gives [schools] a lower cost option to still facilitate that sworn law enforcement presence.”
Class three SLEOs must abide by several standards, including completion of basic police training, retiring in good standing, and having been retired for less than three years.
So far, Craig notes that the class three program has been a success—adding that tragedies like Parkland and the shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, spurred schools to adopt the program.
“The first year of implementation they got off to a slow start, but many schools in New Jersey…are researching and implementing class threes in their schools,” he says.
NASRO. There is a national member organization for SROs, the National Association for School Resource Officers (NASRO), that provides standardized training for law enforcement working in schools.
Mo Canady, director at NASRO, says that working in an educational environment requires proper training.
“It’s the most unique assignment in law enforcement; there’s nothing else like it,” he tells Security Management. “And you’ve got to be trained on how to properly work in that environment.”
NASRO recommends that SROs have at least three years of experience in law enforcement before being assigned to a school.
“At one minute, they have to be teaching a group of kids in a classroom or mentoring a student, and at the flip of a switch—in a split second—turn into the best tactical officer the department has to be able to stop a violent incident,” he says. “So, it’s quite a balance we’re talking about.”
According to Canady, training in special education and diversity are critical. “If you hear someone talking about ADHD, or a manifestation of a student’s disability, it can be very frustrating as an officer to come into that environment and not understand some of those things that are being talked about,” he says.
Responsibilities. The shadow of an active assailant threat looms large over U.S. K-12 schools, and SROs are being prepared to protect their campuses should the event arise. Still, Canady says SROs must remain focused on the day-to-day threats that are much more likely to occur and affect student safety.
“Most SROs, most schools are never going to face an active shooter event,” Canady notes. “It’s a high impact event with low probability, and so we have to be prepared for it.”
He says the higher likelihood on any given day for an SRO is dealing with students who may have problems at home, abuse narcotics, or are involved in criminal mischief.
“This is where we want SROs to be actively engaging with students in a positive way, through informal counseling and through education,” Canady says.
Still, SRO training would be remiss not to include active assailant response tactics. “Back in the Columbine days, we were waiting for SWAT teams to arrive,” Craig notes of SROs. “Now the expectation is that the first officer on the scene is going to enter the building and try to neutralize any threat and any active shooter incident.”
When it comes to day-to-day classroom management, Craig says SROs should not cross the line between basic disciplinary tactics and using excessive amounts of force against a student who misbehaves.
“We’ve seen some difficult situations throughout the country where force has been used, sometimes excessively,” he notes.
While those difficult situations may be rare, some have garnered national attention. A viral video, for example, surfaced from a South Carolina high school in October 2015. It depicted an SRO slamming a student to the ground after she refused to leave class for causing a disruption. The video called into question whether SROs should be as involved in classroom disciplinary issues.
Craig iterates that if a student refuses to put his or her cellphone away, for example, that’s the type of discipline a teacher, administrator, or even school security staff should handle, not the SRO.
“If the behavior rises to the level where someone’s being physically assaulted—there’s a physical danger of physical threat to that student or to someone else—those are the situations where SROs are going to get involved,” he notes.
Relationship building. Experts emphasize that one of the most important functions of SROs is their ability to detect and prevent threats through relationships with students.
“There are multiple situations where a good SRO…has come to discover that we have a child that’s in danger—in a situation at home or wherever it may be—and they have taken steps to get the child help,” Canady notes.
He recalls the case of a veteran SRO in the southeast United States, who was called to a classroom to deal with a disruptive female student.
“She walked her down to the administrative offices….and just sat down and talked with the student,” he says. “And what came to light in this discussion is that she was being sexually abused by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, and it had been going on for over a year.”
In that case, the SRO was able to help make a case against the mother’s abusive boyfriend, and he was sentenced to jail.
“So instead of having a situation where we’ve got a student arrested for disorderly conduct, we had a very good SRO in place that knew there was something more to the story, and took the time to deal with it,” Canady says. “SROs are doing that all over the country right now.”
Tips given to SROs by students or even members of the community also prove invaluable in stopping threats or determining their credibility. Craig notes that social media has become a breeding ground for information on possible threats to student safety.
“Our students, they are on social media all the time, so they see a lot more and hear a lot more of potential threats and things that could potentially impact the school district than the adults,” he says.
In one instance, a student posted a threat on social media that centered around a school football game. After the SRO was notified of the post, the school identified the student and conducted a risk assessment, ultimately concluding that the threat was not a credible one.
“Our students are very comfortable with the fact that they can communicate with our SROs and let them know about those threats…so they can try and take preventative action, rather than have to react after something happens,” Craig explains.
Partnerships. Partnering with other stakeholders is key to an SRO’s success. Wren notes that it’s critical to bring the officers and administrators together, as well as the three law enforcement agencies in his school district, to conduct training, drills, and tabletop exercises.
“We bring our SROs and administrators together every year for a training session, and we talk about emergency planning, emergency management,” he says. “We talk about security, we reiterate our policies, and our memorandum of agreement between the agencies.”
NASRO continues to be involved in initiatives and partnerships across the country to help improve the training and overall effectiveness of SROs. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the organization’s national conference in June 2018, where he announced $25 million in funding for training and technology to improve school emergency reporting.
“I believe this funding is going to make you more effective—and that will make the children of this country safer,” Sessions said.
In July, Canady had the opportunity to testify before the Federal Commission on School Safety at the White House, along with two other NASRO board members. He says he believes the future of the organization partly depends on this public-private collaboration.
“We’ve been engaged on a lot of things over the last few months…so that’s exciting,” he notes. “We have a great relationship with the federal government right now.”
In addition, the organization recently released new standards on school-based policing that were added to the Library of Congress.
While stopping threats, providing guidance, and attempting to change students’ lives for the better are the goals for an SRO program, Wren emphasizes that it’s the student who must be willing to make a change in his or her own life. Another photo on his desk, opposite of Jessica’s, serves as a stark reminder of this truth.
As a soccer coach during his SRO days, Wren had a player named Mike who was hard working and dedicated. But over time, he began skipping practice, and Wren did his best to inspire the boy to change. Eventually, Mike went down a bad path, which the adults in his life were ultimately powerless to stop.
“He was arrested with another kid and eight other football players for armed robbery, and he just got out of prison this past year,” Wren says. “It’s still up to the student to make the right decision…I know that I did everything I could do.”
He adds, “SROs…they are going home with a clear conscience that they have done everything they can either to prevent something from happening, or to build that relationship with that student to get them through to graduation.”
Holly Stowell is former associate editor at Security Management.