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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Note: In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, along with calls for public safety reform, has changed so much in our communities. Schools across the nation are dramatically changing the way they operate. Drastic changes in state and local funding will demand changes in personnel in education, justice, health, and all other sectors. As local law enforcement budgets are impacted, community and public safety leaders will have to reimagine the roles of their officers. They will also have to decide whether and how to use School Resource Officers (SROs). This article addresses the issue of placing SROs in schools.
Clearly, the field of criminology needs more and better data on the effectiveness and impact of school-based law enforcement. As a recent Congressional Research Service report stated: “There is a limited body of research available regarding the effect School Resource Officers (SROs) have on the school setting.” If a community decides to have a School Resource Officer program, that program must be one that yields positive results, namely, safety and health for all of its students and staff. One area we need to learn more about is how law enforcement agencies should place officers in schools, if they make the decision to put or keep officers in school.
There are different ways law enforcement agencies can arrange officers to work in schools. This article explores some of the current practices, contrasting the “mobile” (or “roving”) model with the model of assigning an officer to a particular school or schools. A better understanding of these models of implementation will provide clearer direction for research that can yield results to better guide the field.
Little research exists on the relative merits of the mobile versus assigned models of posting officers in schools. To help us better determine the best way for a community to place its SROs, we turn to understanding gleaned from years of experience of practitioners in the field. Their insights were stimulated by a project that examined the pros and cons of how a large urban community distributed its officers in schools. Such insights can inform school-law enforcement partnerships considering or reconsidering its placement of SROs, and also help guide needed research comparing the various models.
The “mobile” model of using SROs, sometimes referred to as the “roving” or “roaming” model, describes the case where SROs cover a wide range of schools, either within a sector of a large city or all the schools in a jurisdiction. Officers are not appointed to work in any particular school; rather, they are asked to cover all, or most, of the schools in an area—typically by responding to calls for service from those schools. At times, the mobile model is used as a temporary measure while departments figure out how to staff positions in particular schools. It is also used by SRO supervisors who travel between different schools in support of their SROs and school administrators.
There are multiple benefits to a mobile model of SROs, a major one being coverage. “Mobile deployment allows us to cover a larger area with fewer personnel,” according to Kevin Bethel, former Deputy Police Commissioner of Philadelphia, explaining how the city and its police department cover all of the schools in the city. Philadelphia uses a hybrid model, where police officers typically work outside the school in support of the safety officers inside the school. The greater coverage per officer brings down the cost per school. Additionally, by visiting more schools, officers also develop a broader knowledge of school safety, physical aspects of schools, and get to know more students and school staff.1 Mobile SROs see more problems (and possibly more solutions) throughout the broader community and can help by sharing what they see with other schools. For example, an SRO can make a school principal aware of how another school uses its electronic tardy system more effectively to encourage on-time school attendance.
Mobile SROs also help to establish school-neighborhood connections. One mobile model practice, though not unique, is to have officers patrol the neighborhoods surrounding the school offering “portal (school) to portal (home)" observation. It is not uncommon for mobile SROs to move from a school they cover to the major transportation hub near the school. This route is patrolled because it can be the “hot spot” where fights or gang activity may occur.
Another possible benefit is unpredictability, noted by Dr. Ben Fisher, University of Louisville. Fisher argues that the element of unpredictability can be an asset in law enforcement. Mobile SRO patrols may be in a better position to intervene in negative behavior if those engaged in such behavior are not expecting the officers.
Finally, the mobile model could help to avoid some confusion about reporting relationships, meaning “there is less of a tendency for the SRO to think he/she works for the principal when they, in fact, work for the police department,” according to Sgt. Delmar Williams, SRO Supervisor, Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Police Department.
One argument against the mobile SRO model is that SROs are spread too thin. Precisely because they have such a wide coverage area, SROs do not have a chance to build strong and meaningful relationships with school staff and students. As Deputy Superintendent Leonard DiPietro, Cambridge (Massachusetts) Police Department puts it: “It is difficult to work with ‘whomever’ shows up.” Relatedly, this may impact trust building. Commenting on his district’s experiment with a mobile model rotating through all schools, SRO Todd Runyan, Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Police Department, notes, “The thought process was that the mobile model would allow us to get to follow more of our students as they progressed through the grades. What we found, though, was that when the mobile officers were in a school that was not their assigned school, we had very few people come to us with problems. Generally, what would happen is that a student or teacher would stop by the office, see that their ‘regular SRO’ wasn’t there, and say something to the effect of ‘I'll wait until our normal officer is here.’ We found it [the mobile approach] very difficult to try to make the kinds of relationships that are instrumental to our job.” This is a critical point because, as the COPS Office notes, “Building trust with the community is fundamental to effective policing.”
A mobile model may also lead to shallow understanding about the problems at any given school. “Roaming SROs may not get the sense of community that you need to understand the students and staffing, as well as the aspects of the school building,” according to Sgt. Jessica Murphy, Ed.D., SRO supervisor and academy instructor, Wicomico County, Maryland. This situation may also mean that SROs have less time to be proactive. Using the mobile model, SROs are more reactive than proactive, given the number of schools they have to cover. Further, this type of SRO distribution may reduce the accountability of SROs, given that school administrators do not know or see officers regularly.
This model is where SROs are assigned to cover a particular school, or schools, on a regular basis. The SRO usually goes to that school daily, typically having a designated office space. The SRO may conduct patrols in the school, work with school administrators, serve as a mentor or informal counselor to students, and sometimes even teach students.
Such a model may allow SROs to “build up deeper, first-hand knowledge of the school community,” according to Fisher. The assigned SROs also can “get to know the campus layout, the high-risk areas, etc. They get to know the students and parents,” says Curt Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, and former executive director and founder of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
In turn, an assigned model can build stronger relationships. “The best benefit of the assigned model is long-term relationships,” says Peter Pochowski, founder of Milwaukee’s SRO program. The assigned model affords officers the ability to spend a greater amount of time on school grounds “to develop relationships with the students and a deeper connection to the school and staff,” notes Dr. Joseph McKenna, Director of Safety and Security for the Comal Independent School District in Texas, who has studied SROs extensively. “Having a resident SRO is by far better for de-escalation tactics and rapport building,” states Sgt. Murphy. “One of the true benefits to the [assigned] School Resource Officer program is the fact that it allows that SRO to foster relationships with young people and school staff. Those relationships form the foundation for a true SRO program. . . . They also see that the SRO is ‘part’ of their school, sharing in the school pride to make sure it’s safe,” adds Lavarello.
Assigned models can also facilitate more trust and consistency between SROs and students. “Familiarity with officers who are readily visible and approachable can result in developing the deeper levels of trust which lead people to do things like report suspicious activity. The officer gets to build relationships with the students, much like a beat officer, resulting in a safer campus,” according to Clarence E. Cox, retired chief of the Clayton County (Georgia) School District Police Department and past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). “The assigned model provides consistency, so the SRO is more apt to become a part of that particular school’s community. As such, they may develop more trust, intelligence, and relationships with the students,” states Deputy Superintendent Leonard DiPietro. He adds, “For consistency, stay with the same officer assigned. The schools then know ‘who’ their SRO is and how each officer works with each school.”
Assigned models may also afford more opportunities for proactive efforts. Assigned officers can engage in more education efforts with students, staff, and community members. SROs might teach a curriculum; or give ad hoc presentations on social media, bullying, or a myriad of other topics; or inform staff and parents about a variety of safety issues confronting that community.
Assigned models, however, come with their challenges. A major one is cost. The expense of having assigned SROs can be very high, even when that cost is shared between the school district and law enforcement agency.
Assigned SROs can also be misused by school staff: There are stories of administrators or staff who ask SROs to inappropriately help to enforce school rules (e.g., “Make that boy take off that hat” or “Give that student a ticket for cursing”). At times administrators who may be trying to make the case for removing a student from school may even ask the SRO to give a citation, or arrest a student for breaking a school rule. Enforcing school discipline rules is the responsibility of administrators, not SROs.
Occasionally, critics of the assigned model will argue that assigned officers might not be able to exercise the authority of a police officer if and when that is needed, because the officer has become “too close” with students. Other law enforcement officers and school staff members disagree with that argument, saying that seeing a student as human does not distract a mature officer from still being able to do his or her job.
Communities must figure out the best way to co-produce public safety. If a community decides to put in or retain an SRO program, law enforcement agencies and school systems must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different models. On the specific question of arranging SRO coverage, the assigned model appears to be the optimal arrangement; however, school systems and communities must also consider the costs incurred and the best use of the resources available to them. Evaluation research on this subject could clarify these issues and help communities decide with greater confidence the best way to use officers in schools, should they decide to employ them.
By John Rosiak, founder of Prevention Partnerships, www.rosiakassociates.com
(A version of this article was first published in Translational Criminology, Spring 2020, produced by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.)
1. This observation comes from a February 2018 discussion at the U.S. DOJ Officer of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office). See also https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools.
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