SRO 101: A guide to your first day in school

You may be greeted by wary looks and gazes of consternation from the students – stick out your hand and introduce yourself


By Officer Joseph Zalenski 

Whether you have been “volun-told” or have volunteered to become a school resource officer (SRO), there are several things you should know before your first day at school.

If you haven’t served as an SRO, no matter what classes you’ve attended, no matter your law enforcement or educational background, and no matter how many kids you have at home, this is an experience-based assignment. While you may have kids, you don’t have these kids! And they are as diverse as you can imagine.

Officer Sydney Wilcox and Officer Zalenski pictured on their first day back at school. (Photo/Cape Coral Police Department)
Officer Sydney Wilcox and Officer Zalenski pictured on their first day back at school. (Photo/Cape Coral Police Department)

On your first day, you may be greeted by wary looks and gazes of consternation from the students. Smile and push forward. Your challenge is to make fans out of these folks. Stick out your hand and introduce yourself. To help you on your way, use this CliffsNotes guide to surviving your first semester as an SRO.

Build relationships

In a post-Parkland world, many educators and administrators are pleased to have a law enforcement officer in their schools and the deterrent that offers. However, in some instances, you may encounter pushback. It is in your agency’s best interest to find common ground and sell yourself and the service you bring to the school.

Some principals want a uniformed disciplinarian and general hard-ass cop to prowl the halls ready to pounce on any infraction that may be encountered. Others – particularly elementary and middle school principals – want you to be congenial, visible and accessible to the students and public alike.

Your marked car is the external deterrent to trouble. Your presence and involvement inside the school is what works to keep threats from within occurring. Your goals will include winning the hearts and minds of the student body and making them understand police officers do not have an us vs. them mindset. We aren’t anti-fun; we are pro-safety. The pro-fun part will push you outside your comfort zone.

Win over the educators

Your principal and administrators must be fans of you and your mission. You must work on these relationships daily. You also need to work on your relationships with guidance counselors, behavioral specialists, school psychologists and security specialists. Influencers such as coaches will help find the methods to reach these students and begin a mentoring relationship.

Educators represent the most influential person in a student’s school life and, in many cases, are surrogate parents for kids who may have no real love or guidance at home. You need to win them over. Build connections with with your IT person, your school building supervisor, and maintenance and custodial staff.

Officer Sydney Wilcox and Officer Cortney Hamilton-Reyes during "recess." (Photo/Cape Coral Police Department) 
Officer Sydney Wilcox and Officer Cortney Hamilton-Reyes during "recess." (Photo/Cape Coral Police Department) 

Be ready to fill in gaps and maintain a professional demeanor even when you think what’s being asked is outside of your mission, while never compromising your commitment to the safety and security of the campus, students and staff.

Interact frequently

Your students need to interact with you on a daily basis. You are the sheepdog. Some will want to be sheepdogs years from now and will remember your positive interactions with them.

You will not spend a great deal of time in your office, if you have one. You will be in trouble spots, congregation areas, morning drop off areas, bus drop off and pick up, administation offices and lunchrooms. You will deal with behavioral issues, assist special education students, talk to your state equivalent of Department of Children and Families, and evaluate students for involuntary mental health commitments. You will meet parents who care for their children less than you do. You will perform threat assessments and secure building checks, pull on doors and check locks, ensure single access points are monitored, make sure cameras are optimized for not only watching the student body but for intruders and threats, and educate students how to stay out of trouble and be safe. You will be present in the lunchroom, recess and PE classes, all while working on the above relationships.

If you are beginning to envision a one-armed juggler with a persistent itch, you are getting the picture. Most SROs I know have keep track of the steps they accumulate daily, with 12,000-16,000 steps considered a normal day.

Be a teacher and a mentor

You will be teaching DARE, GATE, or whatever curriculum your agency or school district has agreed upon. Having an instructor background is very helpful. Many students do not have role models for manners or polite interaction, but if you have taught a room full of cops, no crowd will seem daunting.

Officer John DiGiovanni in the classroom. (Photo/Cape Coral Police Department) 
Officer John DiGiovanni in the classroom. (Photo/Cape Coral Police Department) 

Hopefully you have sought this assignment and have prepared not only your warrior tactics and mindset, but also your communication skills. On patrol, you shift gears constantly. As an SRO, you may go from dealing with horrid details of a child’s sexual assault victimization, then into a crowded lunchroom where students want to give you high fives, fist bumps and hugs and won’t understand the distant look on your face. Each student interaction is important.

Take small steps

Your goals need to be flexible and you need to be institutionally aware. It may take time to get things accomplished. In my case, I saw the need for a piece of equipment – an AR-15 rifle – that would cause some controversy. I did some research, then talked it over with my principal, who talked it over with his people who said they weren’t sure, but I had convinced my principal of the need. I discussed it with my chain of command and they were on board when the school district got on board. I touched upon it a few times during the school year to keep the topic alive. When summer came, my chain of command came to me and asked, “Hey, what about the piece of equipment?” Around the same time, my principal said we had approval. Lesson? You have two monolithic entities to negotiate. Take your time, as the answer “not now” isn’t the same as no.

Treasure your time

The most treasured items I have from more than 20 years in law enforcement are from my days as an SRO. I have notes written in crayon that simply say, “Thank you for protecting us.” I have memories of parental interactions that end with, “I’m so glad you’re here in my child’s school.” And I have pictures in my mind of the special education students who were afraid of my uniform the first day I was in school, but who eventually hugged or high-fived me with a big grin.


About the author

Officer Joseph Zalenski is currently assigned as an SRO in Lee County, Florida. He entered the Philadelphia Police Academy Class 322 in 1997 and joined the Cape Coral Police Department in 2005. He has served in patrol as an FTO, training Unit, bike unit, honor guard and now the SRO unit. Officer Zalenski is passionate about campus safety and is frequently caught in the classroom with “his” kids teaching them or spending time at recess, PE or the cafeteria. He recently attended FASRO 2019 and Active Shooter Instructor level courses. 

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