Our first line of defense: Training and recruiting school resource officers

While responding to school threats like active shooters is a part of an SRO’s responsibilities, it barely scratches the surface of how SROs serve our schools


This article and additional content on how police and schools can work together to prevent school shootings and improve student safety can be found in Campus Collaborations, a free eBook available for download.

Following both the Parkland and Maryland school shootings, much attention has been focused on the role of school resource officers (SROs) in our nation’s schools. Many states – from Florida to Texas – are reviewing proposals to improve and dramatically expand school-safety initiatives to include hiring additional SROs – including some states aiming to have at least one SRO in every school.

But what does it mean to be an SRO? What specific training do SROs need that differs from that of a street cop? Here’s a look at the current role of SROs in schools, the specialized training and specific skills required for operating in a school environment, and what police agencies should look for when recruiting and selecting SRO candidates.

MORE THAN A SECURITY PRESENCE

In this Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 photo, Dara Van Antwerp, the school resource officer at Panther Run Elementary School is shown beside her patrol car at the school in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
In this Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 photo, Dara Van Antwerp, the school resource officer at Panther Run Elementary School is shown beside her patrol car at the school in Pembroke Pines, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A common misconception is that an SRO’s sole responsibility is to be an armed security presence. While responding to school threats like active shooters – which, despite heavy media coverage, continue to be a rare occurrence – is a vital component of the school resource officer’s responsibilities, it barely scratches the surface of how SROs serve schools. Mo Canady, Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), sees the primary function of a school officer as a bridge between law enforcement and youth.

“The first goal is to build relationships because it's a community-based policing approach,” Canady told PoliceOne. “In any community-based policing approach, it's about relationships in your community. And there's a great opportunity to do that in a school environment.”

NASRO sees SROs having three roles: law enforcement officer, educator and informal counselor. The association calls this the “triad concept.”

“The first – their foundational piece – is as law enforcement. We have to teach them how that LE role is supposed to work in a school environment. Secondly, they need to be involved in the educational process. We teach them how to get into the classroom and provide a diverse curriculum in law-related education. The third thing is that we want them to get comfortable in the role of an informal counselor and mentor – how they engage with students and help students on a day-to-day basis. Those are the building blocks.”

How an SRO interacts with the student population can vary widely, which underscores the importance of specialized training on a broad range of topics (which we’ll look at in more detail later). As a support system and educator, SROs may work with students in ways ranging from drug education to suicide risk assessment to just being a friendly face that strengthens the connection between kids and cops. As a law enforcer, the SRO may tackle anything from combating gang issues to helping develop school policy that addresses crime.

While the SRO’s duties encompass far more than responding to threats, this community-based approach also plays a vital role in the prevention of school violence. There have been widespread questions following the Parkland shooting about whether the SRO model and training needs to evolve. Canady doesn’t think so. He says Parkland is an outlier in the countless examples of SROs preventing worst-case scenarios before they happen. Much of this success is due to intelligence gathered when an SRO fosters strong relationships with students.

“As an organization, we have been consistent for 28 years in the way we've trained SROs, and the ones who are well-trained, are those you see responding to active shooter events and stopping them,” Canady said. “One of the things the public doesn't see is how many SROs stop these kinds of situations before a round is ever fired. Through building relationships with students, SROs gain valuable intelligence and are able to investigate and stop these things before they ever become an issue.”

WHY SROS NEED SPECIALIZED TRAINING

While Canady argues that the SRO model isn’t in need of a major overhaul, the success of school resource officers is dependent on the specialized training they receive. As states call for boosting SRO numbers, a critical issue is the lack of training standardization and requirements both at the national and state level.

Although the exact number is difficult to determine due to the lack of a national database, NASRO estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 active SROs in the United States. Canady says NASRO trains about 2,000 to 2,500 officers per year. But specialized training – if it’s even mandated at all - can vary in length and comprehensiveness. This problem has become a major point of attention and frustration in many states that have recently introduced expanded school safety plans, like Maryland and North Carolina.

“There are some misconceptions where people think that anyone working in a school as a police officer is an SRO – well, that's not automatically the case,” Canady said. “It's just like if an officer goes to be an investigator or to be a bomb tech –a different level of training is needed for those jobs. The SRO is the most high-profile position in any law enforcement agency, with the greatest level of vulnerability. Our 40-hour basic SRO course needs to be the starting point for any new officer going to work in a school.”

NASRO’s basic course focuses on the wide range of topics that fall under the SRO umbrella. This includes:

  • Ethics standards;
  • Law-related education and classroom management;
  • Working with special-needs students;
  • Fostering counseling and mentoring  relationships with students;
  • Identifying behavior that calls for a referral to mental health or other professional services;
  • Understanding the adolescent brain;
  • Identifying stress and trauma;
  • Emergency operations;
  • Working with a diverse student population;
  • How school law impacts an SRO’s law enforcement duties.

The training doesn’t stop there. From de-escalation tactics to bias training, SROs must continually refresh and expand their knowledge in order to effectively work with students and keep schools safe. NASRO recommends school officers undergo refresher training every summer.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN AN SRO

The unique environment and demands of a school resource officer requires a specific kind of cop to fill the position.

NASRO recommends candidates have at least three years of experience on the street – SROs need to be able to switch from mentor to educator to tactical officer with ease. Canady says agencies should look for officers who haven't had any significant disciplinary issues, have a strong work ethic, the capacity to work on their own without constant supervision, and, most important, a desire to develop strong relationships with youth.  

Recent calls for aggressive hiring of more SROs in many states, combined with the recruitment challenges agencies are already facing, create the potential for disaster. It’s important for agencies to avoid rushing through the hiring process and carefully consider candidates.  Target your recruitment efforts on those who have already established their desire to work with youth.

“Look for things like Boy Scout and Girl Scout leaders; church youth leaders; people who are coaching youth baseball, football and softball; folks involved in youth music events as volunteers – people who sincerely know how to work with youth. When you start looking at all those things, it really narrows the candidate pool in a hurry,” Canady said.

LEARN MORE

For more information on recruitment, training and implementing a school resource officer program, check out the following resources:

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