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Sustainability for Today and Tomorrow

School Resource Officer Programs

Sustainability for Today and Tomorrow

I have a problem … I have a thriving School Resource Officer (SRO) program. I know, it doesn’t sound like a problem, but hear me out. 

My school resource officer is visible and social. The school district is pleased with the level of collaboration with the police department, the kids know and trust their SRO, and the parents love the availability, accessibility and willingness of the SRO to dedicate time to their concerns. My SRO will contribute to every fundraiser and buy more Gertrude Hawk chocolate, Joe Corbi’s pizza, school spirit wear and Yankee Candles than any one person should.

My SRO plays duck-duck-goose at the elementary school and pokes straws in juice boxes. My SRO eats lunch in the middle school cafeteria. My SRO mentors and counsels high school students going through crises. My SRO meets with school administrators, nurses, and guidance counselors to help enhance safety and the overall learning environment. 

My SRO feeds kids; takes disclosures of abuse or neglect that would otherwise go unreported; investigates social media threats; serves as a liaison with social services agencies, and advocates for the success of all our school aged kids. My SRO is honest, trustworthy and a great cop. My SRO directs traffic, dances at pep rallies, stays abreast on social media trends and encourages kids to “Make Smart Choices.”

My SRO reads and interprets custody orders and Protection From Abuse orders. My SRO attends after-school homework club and reads to students. My SRO conducts home visits and coordinates with outside agencies to ensure our children’s physical and emotional needs are being met. My SRO is a member of the Student Assistance Program, Threat Assessment Team, Safe School Committee and works with the local Child Advocacy Center. 

My SRO investigates allegations of abuse, neglect, sexual activity, drug usage, suicidal ideation and mental health disorders. My SRO stays current reading case law as cases emerge involving schools and juvenile justice matters. On top of that, my SRO routinely wears out department-issued boots and needs new footwear.

My SRO is a mandatory reporter and investigates all ChildLine referrals received. Given the exposure in the community, my SRO is often requested by community members when needing police assistance. My SRO will often serve as the face of our department. My SRO attends school plays, musicals and art shows. My SRO organizes car parades and supervises the car line at dismissal. My SRO can write a thorough and detailed report even if one may not have been warranted. My SRO is capable of using discretion and can explain the different factors taken into consideration to justify the response.

My SRO knows student’s names and their friend groups, romantic interests, former romantic interests and siblings. These relationships have evolved and grown throughout the years. The network my SRO has established is a safety net that police officers and school officials have relied upon to fill in gaps of knowledge about a child.

My SRO is reliable, dependable and getting ready to retire. Now do you see my problem? The time for succession planning is now. In fact, the time was probably three years ago. Why is this planning so important? Because school-based policing is critical to creating and maintaining positive long-term relationships within the community. 

To compound this problem, how do you ensure the sustainability of a program with a limited number of candidates interested in the position? It takes a special type of police officer to be an SRO. The difference with this position, as opposed to SWAT, K9, or Traffic Enforcement, is that the primary role may not be traditional law enforcement interventions. 

If one were to adhere to the National Association of School Resource Officers model, SROs serve three (3) essential functions. SROs work as Law Enforcement, informal Mentor/Counselor and Law Related educators. The benefit of this model is that the SRO can dedicate as much or as little time fulfilling these roles based on the needs of the school and community. 

So how do you sell working in a school environment, collaborating with educators, teaching lessons, and mentoring and counseling kids to a traditional cop? The clear appeal of a Monday to Friday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift may initially sound appealing, but if an officer assumes the role of SRO simply focused on the hours, the program is destined for failure. There are certain characteristics found in SROs that administrators may want to be mindful of when selecting a new candidate. Some criteria to consider:

  • An officer with a minimum of five years of police experience. Your potential SRO should understand the job and all the facets of law enforcement. This candidate should understand how to use discretion, how to speak with the public and avoid a focus on arrest/citation statistics. While certain cases will undoubtedly need criminal justice intervention, the “school-to-prison pipeline” is something that needs to be understood and closely monitored by both the SRO and police administration. This officer should have established connections with other departments and agencies to be able to ask for assistance where assistance is needed. Along with a few years on the job, there is a maturation process where this officer can focus on long-term health and success within their community.
  • An officer with a genuine desire to help kids succeed. This officer may be a parent, a coach of an athletic team, a figurehead within a religious institution or an informal community leader. Kids are going to make mistakes, that much in inevitable. But when they are young, and when they are in school, SROs should treat those mistakes as learning opportunities to ensure they do not happen again. What should not happen is for SROs to criminalize juvenile misbehaviors. We want our SRO to help guide students toward success and a productive future.
  • An officer who is competent, honest, personable and not afraid to work. Working in a school environment is substantially different than patrol. The officer assigned as an SRO must be able to work in partnership with school administrators, teachers, staff students and parents. They must have tremendous communication skills, must be patient and must be able to learn the language of education. This officer should have a tremendous work ethic and be able to work without immediate direct supervision. This officer should be able to write a thorough and complete report. Not only is it imperative that this officer act ethically, but also give the appearance of acting ethically. You want an officer who would never put themselves in the position where their morality or motivation is questioned.

These requirements may be a tall order in some police departments. In fact, it is entirely possible that the next SRO does not exist among your current ranks. When opportunities present themselves for temporary or supplemental SRO coverage, this should be seen as a potential trial run for future consideration of filling the position. 

A consideration for future hiring practices may be to consider the characteristics desired for established positions and use those as a benchmark when looking for suitable candidates. More recommendations for SRO programs are available in, “Measuring the Strategic Fit of the School Resource Officer with Law Enforcement (Leaders), the Education System, the Community and Other Interested Parties” (Mielke, Phillips, & Sanborn, 2020, p. 71).  When the critics of law enforcement grow louder and demand defunding or the removal of such community policing initiatives, it is critical to maintain those units who promote positive policing within your community. The relationships built and nurtured over time, only serve to enhance our communities and exemplify the investment into our shared future.

Mike Gargan is a Lieutenant with Lower Gwynedd Township Police (PA) and has served in Law Enforcement for 31 years. He is responsible for administrative duties and is in charge of the patrol division. Lt. Gargan may be reached at MGargan@lowergwynedd.org.

Dr. Beth J Sanborn is a Juvenile Detective/SRO and is a nationally recognized expert in School Resource Officers. She has served Lower Gwynedd Township Police (PA) for 24 years, is an executive board member with the Pennsylvania Association of School Resource Officers (PASRO), and is an instructor with the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). Detective Dr. Sanborn can be reached at BethJSanborn@gmail.com.

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