3 steps to SRO success: How to be a good cop in school

LEOs transitioning into a school setting need to create a solid foundation of trust that will pave the way to a positive experience for staff, students and law enforcement


By Sergeant Christopher Littrell

Americans have seen a violent summer with several mass shootings since May. As lawmakers debate and special interest groups position, Americans are left wondering if their kids will be safe this school year.

Now let’s face it, the odds of having a mass shooting in your kids’ school is less likely than getting struck by lightning. However, statistics do little to calm a parent’s mind when news coverage reminds Americans of the possibility – albeit the extremely low possibility – of a school shooting happening in their neighborhood. [1]

A staff recognition program such as this Golden Donut Award is a great way to recognize staff members for going above and beyond to contribute to the school’s safety. (Photo/Christopher Littrell)
A staff recognition program such as this Golden Donut Award is a great way to recognize staff members for going above and beyond to contribute to the school’s safety. (Photo/Christopher Littrell)

A decades-old solution to school safety is beginning to gain traction again – placing commissioned law enforcement officers in our nation's schools.

Some communities have seen great successes with school-based police officers. Unfortunately, there have also been videos and stories of failures that have gone viral, leading opponents to say that police have no business in our schools. Critics cite that police in schools create a school-to-prison pipeline that unfairly targets minorities. [2,3]

What is the solution? The fact is that most school-based police officers, or school resource officers, receive little training prior to starting their new positions. They know how to be a good cop, but does that translate into an educational environment?

Stephen Covey writes that, “Trust impacts us 24/7, 365 days a year. It undergirds and affects the quality of every relationship, every communication, every work project, every business venture, every effort in which we are engaged.” [4] Law enforcement officers transitioning into a school setting need to create a solid foundation of trust that will pave the way to a great experience for staff, students and law enforcement. Here are three ways to achieve that:

1. Develop Professional Relationships with Staff

School staff are the gatekeepers to an effective school resource officer program. Principals and teachers are continually being pulled this way and that to meet new local, state and federal guidelines. These pressures on instructional time and budgets make it challenging when a new, excited SRO suggests an innovative program or asks to speak in a classroom.

School resource officers can start building professional relationships with staff by becoming one of them. That’s right, join the village. Start by meeting with the principal and department heads, and request permission to attend staff meetings and trainings. Ask relevant questions to better understand teachers’ vying responsibilities. Purchase maple-covered donuts with bacon on top to show you have a sense of humor. At one such training, I listened to a speaker tell the school staff that the newly developed standardized test was so well developed that it was the last one they would ever see. The eye rolls and laughter were expressed by all, including me. I learned the challenges the staff were facing. The teachers learned that I cared.

SROs can also develop trusting relationships by being effective communicators. Be ready to address staff one-on-one or at meetings. Have brief, consistent, genuine talking points that reinforce everyone’s shared efforts of keeping the school safe. One approach is to create a staff recognition program. I created the Golden Donut Award at a local high school. Each month, one staff member was recognized for going above and beyond to contribute to the school’s safety. These acts ranged from assisting a student in mental crisis, responding to a medical emergency and reporting a trespasser on campus. Local businesses sponsored the award, contributing a large pizza, maple donut and traveling wooden plaque. Teachers later told me that the award was significant as it recognized the extra work teachers do every day.

SROs with school-based offices should have an open-door policy. Keep the door open! Be ready to be interrupted by staff. When interrupted, completely stop what you are doing. Move away from your computer and phone. Keep your cellphone on silent. And last, but not least, actively listen. Some teachers just need to be heard; others need to report a crime and feel comfortable with you because you are a familiar face.

2. Engage Students in Various Environments

As teachers accept the SRO as a member of the staff, it will enable the officer to engage students in various environments. Start by being present and highly visible to students throughout the school day. Welcome kids at the crosswalk or front doors. Stand at different locations throughout the school during passing periods. Smile, give high fives and laugh! Students are going to want to tell a cop joke, so as long as it is not totally disrespectful, smile!

Another environment to engage students is in the classroom. Request permission from teachers to give guest presentations. This small group setting allows students to see your humanity. Be a straight talker. The next time there is a highly publicized officer-involved shooting, students are going to ask your opinion. If the shooting looks bad, acknowledge it. Be transparent and explain the importance of a thorough investigation. Point out that a 15-second video does not show what precipitated the shooting and only a full investigation will reveal those facts. End by reinforcing that the SRO is committed to keeping the students in the school safe. I believe my time in the classroom was the greatest relationship-building activity I did with students.

Find other times to engage students. If you are in good physical health, ask coaches if you can condition with the student athletes after school. Whether you can keep up with the students or not, showing a never-going-to-quit mentality quickly establishes credibility with kids.

Develop a student recognition program that highlights desired character traits. Team with local businesses and military recruiters to give out freebies to students. At a local high school, the behaviors ranged from courage (sounding the alarm when a trespasser was on campus assaulting his girlfriend) to integrity (turning in a found iPhone). The rewards ranged from ice cream cones and Coke products to clothing items and free tickets to a hockey game. Partner with teachers to use the last two minutes of classroom time to recognize students in front of their peers. If school district policy allows, use social media platforms to further publicize the good deeds.

Finally, just as you did with staff, keep your door open. As an SRO builds a reputation of being trustworthy, students will increasingly come your way to talk. Be an active listener and eliminate distractions. Leverage the already-established professional relationships with staff to help them navigate their problems. Whenever possible, reinforce the teachers’ authority in the classroom, the principal’s authority in the school and parents’ authority in their life.

3. Maintain Strong LEO Relationships

It is important for SROs to maintain strong relationships with law enforcement officers in their region. Most SROs work as the only officer in a school making their closest backup officer a patrol officer working a beat. Maintaining trusting relationships with LEO peers means streamlined operations when another officer or detective comes into the school.

To foster these relationships, SROs need to intentionally engage other LEOs. Go to coffee with officers. Invite them to lunch at the school, your treat. During extended school breaks, work a patrol zone, taking calls for service and leading police investigations. Maintain police training and certifications. If an investigation starts outside of the school and involves your students, lend your resources when appropriate. Bottom line, stay relevant as a law enforcement professional.

And finally, be an effective communicator with your peers and superiors. If you plan to implement outside-the-box programs, make sure you have the support of your bosses. At the end of the day, you are an LEO for your sponsoring agency. LEOs do not like surprises and neither do our bosses. Effectively communicate to supervisors why your relationship-building strategies are going to contribute to a safer school, and they will have your back.

References

1. Based on statistics from the US Department of Education’s publication Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2018, published April 2019, students have a 1 in 2.7 million chance of being the victim of violent death at school. The National Weather Service reports the odds of a US citizen being struck by lightning is 1 in 1,222,000.

2. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.Police in Schools are Not the Answer to the Newtown Shooting. January 2013.

3. Dolan K. It’s Time to Get Cops Out of Schools. Institute for Policy Studies, April 12, 2016.

4. Covey S. The Speed of Trust. Free Press, 2006.


About the author

Sergeant Christopher Littrell has been a law enforcement officer in Washington State for 14 years. He has had the opportunity to serve as a patrol officer, gang detective, CISM peer support group counselor, SWAT member, school resource officer, patrol sergeant and detective sergeant. Previously Sergeant Littrell served in the United States Air Force as a Security Forces member and is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.

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