Confronted with incidents of tragic violence and the potential for more, education institutions have focused on ways to bolster the security of their buildings and campuses.
Often, that has led to the installation of equipment to protect students and staff, such as video surveillance; metal detectors; and better locks, doors and windows. But along with facility upgrades that enhance safety, schools are looking for ways to improve the climate for education, so that students and staff can interact in an environment where they don't fear for their safety. The answer for many institutions is a school resource officer (SRO).
Part teacher and part law enforcer, SROs give schools a valued presence that can deter students from causing trouble. Their presence also offers schools an opportunity to do what they do best: help students learn.
SROs are one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement, says Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers based in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Two factors in recent years have fueled that growth. The highly publicized incidents of school crime and violence that culminated in the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado persuaded nearly all school administrators to re-examine the level of security in their buildings.
At the same time, the federal government established its COPS in Schools program as part of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Police Services (COPS). It has provided millions of dollars to place community police officers in schools.
"COPS has funded the addition of over 2,600 officers in our nation's schools," U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said in a report to Congress last year. "These resource officers are partnering with students, teachers and parents to become an important part of the fabric of the daily school environment."
The COPS in Schools grants provide up to $125,000 to pay for a school resource officer for three years. The officers are part of the municipal or county police force, so they maintain a direct line to those agencies, and their permanent presence at a school allows them to establish rapport and trust with students.
The officers are also called upon to teach classes in areas such as crime prevention, substance-abuse education and safety.
"A school resource officer should combine three elements - law enforcement, education, and counseling or mentoring," says Lavarello.
Many schools already have their own police or security staffs to patrol buildings, but still welcome the additional attention that resource officers can give to students.
"I'm a big proponent of school resource officers," says Russell Tedesco, director of security for Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland. "The program is a benefit to students, staff, the community - everybody. It lets students see the officers in a different light."
Although SROs have become more commonplace in the 1990s, the concept has been around for a long time.
Tucson, Ariz., was one of the first areas to establish a SRO program. Inspired by a similar program in Flint, Mich., the city's police department and school district started a program in 1962 to combat juvenile delinquency. A similar program was begun subsequently in Miami, and school resource officers became prevalent throughout Florida.
Now in Tucson, there are SROs assigned to each of the district's middle schools and three officers who travel among 10 high schools, according to Warren Allison, coordinator of the school safety department for Tucson Unified School District.
As a member of the Tucson Police Department, Allison worked for several years as a SRO.
"We were dealing with the same types of issues," he says. "What has changed since then is the availability of weapons. Many kids have become desensitized to shootings."
Today's SROs put greater emphasis on prevention and education.
"Over the years, it has evolved," says Allison. "It has become more of a teaching-type thing."
And just as a school wouldn't want to put a teacher into a classroom without any training, it wouldn't want to put a police officer in front of students without any preparation.
"School resource officers need specialized training that most police academies don't provide," says Lavarello.
THE RIGHT OFFICER
A police officer used to patrolling city streets and dealing with criminals and victims might not be ready for the different atmosphere found in a school.
"There needs to be a transition when an officer comes off the street," says Lavarello. "It's a proactive environment instead of reactive. You have to shift your way of thinking."
To serve effectively as a mentor or counselor to students, an officer working in a school needs to be approachable and immersed in the school environment.
"The selection of the right school resource officer is critical," says Lavarello. "They are just not police officers assigned to a campus.
By advocating SROs, schools aren't ignoring the value of equipment and technology that deters crime and enhances safety. But officials recognize that relying too heavily on those solutions won't guarantee a safe facility.
"They can provide a false sense of security," says Allison. "There is no quick fix."
For instance, Allison says metal detectors would be impractical at Tucson's high schools, which typically have 60 to 80 doors to the outside.
Lavarello says that each district has to be familiar enough with its facilities, students and staff so that it can determine which security measures would work most effectively.
"There has to be an assessment of what the district needs," says Lavarello. "There needs to be a balance between technology and programs."