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5 ways your police department can be a resource for school safety

Best practices include placing officers on campus, controlling access points and adopting a layered approach to keep out weapons


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By Rachel Zoch, PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Legal requirements for cooperation between schools and local law enforcement vary from state to state, but it’s important to build a solid working relationship to promote school safety. Some basic best practices apply across the board, such as the presence of uniformed officers, a single monitored point of entry and a layered approach to keeping out weapons and unauthorized individuals.

A single, monitored point of entry and screening measures to keep weapons out of schools, plus the presence of a uniformed officer on campus, are key strategies to boost school safety. (image/Getty)
A single, monitored point of entry and screening measures to keep weapons out of schools, plus the presence of a uniformed officer on campus, are key strategies to boost school safety. (image/Getty)

Here are five ways local police agencies can support school leaders in their efforts to boost campus security, based on the advice of two school safety experts:

1. BUILD AND MAINTAIN RELATIONSHIPS WITH SCHOOL LEADERS

Both Timm and Zalenski say that communication is the foundation for a strong school safety program, and it starts with building relationships between law enforcement and school administrators.

So how should you, as law enforcement, approach the school district? In some states, like Illinois and Florida, police have a mandate to work with schools. It’s best to be proactive and build these relationships in a positive rather than punitive way, says Timm. He recommends scheduling regular meetings between school administrators and local law enforcement, perhaps quarterly or once a semester, to discuss concerns, upcoming events, safety strategies and more. He also suggests literally inviting police into school buildings to learn the layout and conduct training.

“Many school buildings are like labyrinths,” Timm said. “The layout isn’t easy, so if police are having to come in a real emergency, it can be difficult to get acquainted.”

Zalenski agrees that communication is the bedrock of a good working relationship. Early conversations between school and police leaders need to build an understanding of what’s going to be needed and supplied from both directions, he says.

“It provides that framework for the people who are the boots on the ground in order to go forward and know what the expectations are of the relationship and the cooperation,” he said.

After that, Zalenski says, comes the most critical step: Selecting the personnel who will work directly in the schools.

2. PUT BOOTS ON THE GROUND WITH OFFICERS ON CAMPUS

Providing a uniformed police officer on campus is a key service your agency can offer. School resource officers provide a critical deterrent, as well as an opportunity to build relationships with students and faculty.

“If it were possible, I would have a school resource officer in every school building in America,” said Timm. “That is the very definition of a school and community partnership, because generally, the salary for that individual is split between school and a local law enforcement agency or community.”

Anytime you have a uniformed police officer in the building, everyone is automatically safer, he adds.

“Everyone is behaving better. It acts as a deterrent for people who might otherwise have malevolent intent,” Timm said, “and then the better relationship we have, the better off we are. If, for example, a school resource officer likes kids and fosters good relationships, we’re just way safer than we would be otherwise.”

Zalenski agrees, adding that officers who will be interacting with students, staff and parents on a daily basis must be skilled communicators as well as skilled officers.

“Your personnel selection is going to be very critical to the success of the equation,” said Zalenski. “You need people who can talk. You need people who can run and gun, and talk. Because they’re going to do a lot more talking than they’re going to be doing the tactical stuff.”

He recommends a warm, personal approach to break down any barrier that the uniform itself may pose.

“This is a job where you need to stick your hand out and introduce yourself first. Because you’re the one in the police outfit, you’re the one carrying that authority. So, now it’s incumbent upon you to break down that barrier,” he said. “I make it a point of meeting every new teacher, every new paraprofessional. They call me Joe, and the kids call me Officer Z.”

School Resource Officers Joe Zalenski, left, and Trend Westerlund, right, serve with the Cape Coral, PD in Florida.
School resource officers Joe Zalenski, left, and Trend Westerlund, right, serve with the Cape Coral PD in Florida. School resource officers provide a critical deterrent, as well as an opportunity to build relationships with students and faculty. (images/Cape Coral PD)

Daily interaction with students and teachers, says Zalenski, can provide a strong countermeasure to potential threats, because the more involved the SRO is with the campus community, the better they will be able to recognize warning signs. The more trust an officer has built with students and teachers, the more likely someone is to say something when they see something.

“The staff has to know that they can come to you with problems,” he said, “and if you’re paying attention, you can pick up on the indicators. … There are warning signs, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you go right past them. It’s not some road sign. By the time law enforcement is responding to it, or by the time you have your weapon out and shots are being fired, we’ve failed. We’re too late.”

Timm echoes this advice, suggesting that SROs should immerse themselves in the campus community to help build those vital relationships by getting involved with various programs or clubs and attending sporting events.

“Some schools will have vocational programs that will provide a bridge for students to one day be emergency responders, whether it’s law enforcement or firefighters,” he said. “We know that athletic events generally are taking place after hours, and generally there are not a lot of administrators at the school after hours, so having local law enforcement there to root for basketball games, football games, what have you, is always helpful.”

An officer on campus and at after-hours events can help identify who belongs and who doesn’t. Police can also offer expertise and personnel to help school administrators better address access issues.

3. ADVISE A ‘CLOSED CAMPUS’ APPROACH

One generally accepted best practice is to maintain a single point of entry, also known as a closed campus, where exterior doors are closed and locked except for that single point of entry. This means all students, staff and visitors are required to come in a main entry that is monitored, potentially by the campus SRO or other uniformed officers. Police can help by conducting facility assessments to identify potential threats and the best places to set up controlled access points.

“They’re academics. They don’t see the school as center-fed rooms and T-intersections and choke points,” said Zalenski. “They don't know anything about that. That’s why you need to talk to them.”

The closed campus approach can present a challenge for larger schools with multiple buildings, but Timm says multiple points of entry are OK, as long as those entries are monitored – although that requires adequate staffing by trained monitors. If your staffing levels allow, your department can provide officers to monitor these entry points at peak times, such as the hour before classes start, or for special events after hours.

4. RECOMMEND A LAYERED SCREENING STRATEGY TO KEEP WEAPONS OUT OF SHCOOLS

Keeping out weapons is a top priority for any campus. For maximum success, schools should adopt a combination of layered strategies that build on the closed campus approach, which funnels everyone through designated access points, making it easier to screen individuals for prohibited items. These efforts can include bag searches, metal detectors or X-ray screening at the point of entry.

“We’re all concerned that the next weapon is going to be in the school and cause significant harm, so whenever you can have a layered defense, layers of protection, you’re doing better,” said Timm. “So maybe we can have something at a main entry where all visitors or all students are required to come where we can detect something before it’s either utilized or discovered in a really terrible emergency.”

He also cautions against arming faculty and staff due to multiple risks. In particular, civilians don’t have the same extensive training and certification that police officers do, and an officer responding to an emergency call might mistake an unmarked civilian teacher with a firearm in their hand as a threat.

“The No. 1 question I get asked is, ‘Shouldn’t teachers be able to carry firearms?’” said Timm. “I think only law enforcement officials should carry firearms in school buildings. The reasons why – and I think local law enforcement would tell you this – handguns are notoriously inaccurate, and law enforcement officials would only be discharging their firearm as a last resort.”

Timm recommends that SROs join the National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides guidance on this and other issues, in addition to training, best practices and other resources.

5. COLLABORATE ON GRANTS AND SHARE TRAINING RESOURCES

All these strategies require funding, and money is often tight for schools and law enforcement agencies. Another way your agency can help your local schools boost safety is to work together to apply for grant money.

“Some grant programs require collaboration between school and law enforcement, and occasionally, law enforcement are more aware of those grants or are leading the writing of those grants,” said Timm. “Money is an issue for everybody, so anytime a community can say school and law enforcement joined together and got these protection measures as a result, it’s a benefit to everyone.”

Federal grants that provide funding for school safety measures include:

  • STOP School Violence grant – BJA provides grants to train school personnel and educate students on preventing student violence, develop and operate anonymous reporting systems for threats and support measures that may provide a significant improvement in training, threat assessments and reporting.
  • COPS School Violence Prevention Program grant – Recipients must use funding for the benefit of K-12, primary and secondary schools and students. SVPP funding will provide up to 75% funding for activities such as coordination with law enforcement and training for local law enforcement officers to prevent student violence.

“The COPS grant does fund part of a school resource officer’s salary, and it’s generally a multiyear grant, meaning you’re not just going to have an SRO for the year and then gone,” said Timm. “They want some sustainability for that.”

Other grant resources include large federal programs, as well as local groups and private foundations.

The bottom line? Schools need to know who’s on campus and how to keep weapons out. Law enforcement can help by offering advice and personnel support, which can range from performing a threat assessment of campuses and helping schools adopt screening measures to providing a school resource officer for each campus.

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