Justice Department says school resource officers could prevent school shootings

Dive Brief:

  • A report released by the U.S. Department of Justice this week says school resource officers “may have a profound impact on the school’s ability to prevent targeted violence and other maladaptive behaviors.” The report includes school-based law enforcement as part of the department’s 10 essential recommendations for the “physical and emotional safety” of schools. 
  • While the report suggests every officer, whether law enforcement or privately hired, receive ongoing training, it recommends 40 hours of specialized training at a minimum in areas including implicit bias, de-escalation, trauma-informed investigations, adolescent development, crisis intervention and active shooter situations. 
  • The guidance also says districts that do not have the resources to place an SRO in each school could:
    • Clearly define roles, responsibilities and expectations of the officers and schools.
    • Contract with law enforcement agencies for off-duty officers to serve as school security.
    • Establish a “substation” at schools for law enforcement to use for breaks, report writing and meeting with students and families about school-related issues.
    • Hire retired law enforcement officers to serve as school employees.
    • Utilize a private security company to contract for school security officers. 

Dive Insight:

The report was compiled by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) School Safety Working Group with the input of various law enforcement organization. Other steps the guidance says districts can take include:

  • Assessing highest probability threats.
  • Factoring students’ input and their unique needs in adopting school safety and security plans.
  • Designating behavior threat assessment and management teams.
  • Retrofitting old buildings for school safety technology.
  • Fostering a positive school climate.
  • Using anonymous reporting systems.
  • Coordinating with first responders during planning and training.
  • Providing mental health resources.
  • Putting in place social media alert systems to identify at-risk behavior or threats.
  • Conducting drills. 

The report comes as debates continue in a number of school districts nationwide following civil rights protests sparked by the police-involved deaths of Minneapolis resident George Floyd and other Black Americans. Some districts have chosen to sever contracts with their local law enforcement agencies, while some boards are still debating the issue. Meanwhile, other districts, like Chicago Public Schools, have decided to retain SROs in schools.  

Critics of SRO programs argue the police presence disproportionately impacts students of color and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline, while advocates say SROs make schools safer and can be effective in community policing if they are properly trained. 

Following Minneapolis Public Schools’ decision to severe ties with their police department, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told Education Dive that districts moving in that direction were “dismissing potentially the best form of community-based policing they could hope to have.” 

“When we’ve got an SRO who is carefully selected  in other words they’re trained and there’s good collaboration between the district and the law enforcement agency  the goal is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth with positive relationships,” he said. A problem may arise, he added, if SROs are not carefully selected or trained and don’t have an interest in working with youth. 

Research suggests school policing increases the odds of school officials referring students to law enforcement for lower-level offenses, in addition to other infractions. ​However, Canady said, “good SROs don’t spend all day arresting kids, they actually filter arrests.” 

Patterns show that following every high-profile school shooting, policy responses typically include increases in funding to harden school buildings and hire SROs. However, whether SROs are effective in preventing school shootings has also been a matter of heated debate.

Some studies show stringent security measures, including security officers, do not increase school safety. According to research compiled by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, there is no evidence that they prevent school violence. Some also point out that sites of some of the deadliest school shootings, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and Columbine High School in Colorado, had SROs present.

A study published in July — which compared schools that increased SRO staffing through funding from the Justice Department’s COPS Hiring Program with schools that didn’t increase their SROs  recommended education leaders consider alternatives to regular police presence in schools.

The DOJ report also says there have been “numerous documented instances” of SROs preventing or mitigating active school shootings, referencing two incidents in 2018  one in Maryland and another in Illinois where SROs successfully intervened.

Notably, the report suggests training every SRO or SSO according to the National Association of School Resource Officers’ standards and best practices, as well as meeting state requirements for training. However, not all states have certification or training standards for SROs in their laws or regulations, and standards can vary greatly across localities and districts.

NASRO offers a 40-hour course over five days. The organization also works with districts under individualized contracts based on how many officers will be trained.  

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