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Director’s Column: December 2012

On December 12, 2012 the Attorney General’s Defending Childhood National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence released a report with 56 recommendations to address the epidemic of children who are direct victims of or witnesses to violence in our nation’s homes, schools and communities. The report begins with an introduction from co-chairs Robert L. Listenbee, Jr. and Joe Torre which states that “We are facing one of the most significant challenges to the future of America’s children that we have ever known. Our children are experiencing and witnessing violence on an alarming scale.” Less than 48 hours after the release of this report on December 14th a gunman opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut killing 26 people, twenty of them children, ages of 6 and 7.

That singular act of violence is as horrific as it is unimaginable. Yet it represents the violence and trauma that plagues millions of children who are exposed to violence every day this country. According to the Task Force Report “in the United States, we lose an average of more than 9 children and youths ages 5 to 18 to homicide or suicide per day — a total of 3,000 children each year.” The exposure of children to crime, abuse and violence is a national epidemic and the tragedy at Sandy Hook must serve as a wake-up call to the American people. Individuals, communities, agencies and organizations are asking “why did this happen” and “what can we do to prevent these pervasive acts of violence”. Certainly one of the suggestions will be to increase the presence of armed security, whether publicly or privately provided, on our nation’s campuses. This raises the larger question as to what is the best role for police who serve in our nation’s schools.

Those opposed to the idea of police in schools have argued that, at best, they are a waste of resources and, at worst, may create an oppressive environment on the campus that undermines education and increases referrals to the juvenile justice system. A day before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Washington Post ran an article on a congressional hearing to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” which refers to zero-tolerance policies that force schools to become dependent on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement to punish students. Unquestionably, children are being arrested or removed from schools, even for minor discretions, at alarming rates around the country. These children are predominantly minority students or those with emotional and behavioral disabilities. This disparity is particularly troubling.

School should be a safe place for all children to learn and develop. I believe that law enforcement can and should have a role in this process. Law enforcement can be a genuine education partner with the common goal of identifying and helping students who are at a difficult stage in life. They are at the age where the risk for dropping out, academic failure, behavioral problems, substance abuse, gang involvement, and depression that could lead to thoughts of suicide is significantly increased, particularly if there are issues within the home or the community.

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) advances the practice of community policing in America’s state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies. The COPS Office has made a significant investment in school safety programs, including COPS in Schools and Secure our Schools since the mid-90s. Law enforcement plays a critical role in creating and establishing a healthy, safe environment for our children. The National Association of School Resource Officers has articulated the triad concept of the school resource officer’s role which states that an SRO should function as a teacher and counselor as well as a law enforcement officer. The COPS Office strongly supports that model and believes that the role of police in our nation’s school should be to serve as both a protective source of security as well as a gateway for identifying children in need and connecting them with necessary support services.

Through a community policing framework, school resource officers can work collaboratively with community service providers to provide support to children and families exposed to violence in their homes, neighborhoods, or schools. They can also ensure that children’s fears about crime in schools, whatever the source, are kept at bay. The relationships developed between law enforcement and children at this impressionable age can have a long-lasting and positive benefit. Also, the information learned in a school hallway can contribute significantly to reducing crime and increasing officer safety on the streets.

School resource officers are on the front line in these schools systems. As such, they can play a vital role in identifying and assisting troubled youth, ensuring the safety of the campus and building positive community relationships. In so doing, they will contribute to “Defending Childhood”. We simply can no longer passively sit by and accept losing an average of nine innocent lives every single day.

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