How Mental Health Training Helps School Resource Officers


So many young people today experience trauma and other mental health issues. As part of their “informal counselor” role, school resource officers (SRO) must be equipped to recognize the signs of mental illness and how to respond to these youth. When SROs understand mental illness and crises and make referrals to mental health and other community providers, they are engaged in a fundamental strategy to keep youth healthy, in school, and out of justice involvement.

Why law enforcement officers need mental health training

It is well documented that many children experience mental disorders. As the training manual for Youth Mental Health First Aid USA notes: Up to 1 in 5 children in the United States experiences a mental disorder in any given year.1 These problems impact the way children learn, behave, and handle their emotions. Research also indicates that trauma can have negative and lasting effects on how youth develop throughout life.

Law enforcement officers have found mental health, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), and related training to be very useful tools to supplement their duty belt. As Carl Crumbacker, instructor at the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy at Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, Maryland, puts it, “Young people today are suffering from problems that we did not. We have to take care of them, work in partnership with mental health and other providers, and take our youth through the stages they need.”

How mental health training benefits SROs

Many SRO programs have supported their counselor/mentor role with training in how to recognize and respond to a variety of mental health and related issues. SROs and SRO supervisors convey how mental health training has the following benefits:

  • Increasing awareness of resources in the community

Lieutenant Cindy Wood of the Henrico County (Virginia) Police Department trains SROs in CIT training, noting that “The most important part of the training is that officers learn about the resources they can call upon. This helps them to come up with a plan for the student and family to work with mental health providers, thereby providing an alternative to incarceration.”

  • Providing better insights into youth

Sergeant Jessica Murphy, EdD, is a Youth Mental Health First Aid and CIT trainer in Wicomico County, Maryland, who supervises SROs. Murphy believes that when officers are trained to understand the mental health issues of students, they are in a better position to look at underlying circumstances to see that behavior like throwing a chair might be a manifestation of a disability or mental health issue.

  • Enabling better referrals for youth and their families

Officer Caisee Sandusky, an SRO from the Minot (North Dakota) Police Department, highly recommends mental health training, noting that “An alarming amount of youth in the justice system have mental health problems. When I’m dealing with those students who have an underlying mental health issue, I try many other referrals and interventions before I have to put the youth into the criminal justice system. ”

  • Helping the SRO be a resource to school staff, parents, and others

Mental health training is not just useful for dealing with students. As SRO Ronald Porupsky of the Pleasant Hills (Pennsylvania) Police Department points out, “The more knowledge SROs have about students with certain mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, the better we can be a resource to the students and the faculty. Mental health training can also be very useful when dealing with parents that may have mental illnesses and dependency issues.”

  • Aiding in understanding officer wellness

Yet another value of mental health training is pointed out by former SRO (now Detective) Brandee Casias of the Salt Lake City (Utah) Police Department, who also serves as director of the Utah statewide CIT program. She says, “This training explains how officers are not exempt from a mental illness, teaches empathy, and shows officers how to take care of themselves.”

Where SROs can get mental health training

Law enforcement departments—often in partnership with mental health agencies—are employing a variety of approaches to get their SROs trained. Law enforcement agencies are finding ways to tap into the existing capacities available to their communities by teaming with justice, mental health, and education partners at the local, state, and national level. Such training is available from a variety of sources, including the following:

  • Mental Health First Aid offers different training courses, including those for adults working with youth, and public safety professionals. Contact them to find courses near your community.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has published a CIT manual for police, schools, mental health professionals, and others to help build local programs. Contact your state and local chapters of NAMI, which often offer training for SROs and others.
  • The National Association of School Resource Officers and state SRO associations also provide training modules on juvenile mental health. NASRO’s basic course now includes a module on how to deal with students exposed to trauma.
  • State mental health departments, often in partnership with state juvenile corrections agencies, provide training for justice personnel.
  • Local schools offer trainings, which can be attended by SROs, such as suicide prevention training, which some states require of school employees.
  • Law enforcement training academies and local departments are also sources of training on mental health issues.

Officer Scott Davis of Montgomery County, Maryland (a former SRO and CIT Officer of the Year in 2014), sums it up well: “The benefits of CIT and mental health training are huge. It’s advantageous to everyone. Officers are definitely saving lives every day. And by using mental health training, we are getting youth the help they need and keeping them out of the justice system.”

This article is excerpted from a longer article that appears in NASRO’s Winter 2016 edition of the Journal of School Safety.

John Rosiak, Principal
Prevention Partnerships
Rosiak Associates, LLC


1 Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Missouri Department of Mental Health, and National Council for Community Behavioral Health (2012). Youth Mental Health First Aid® USA for Adults Assisting Young People

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