Officer Euel Thomas Smith was gunned down in broad daylight on April 22, 1983, in front of hundreds of witnesses, many of them children. His death, like every line-of-duty death, was tragic. He died trying to make us all a little safer. More specifically, he died so the children in his community could be safer.
Officer Smith was a police officer serving with the Bibb County Public School Police Department in Macon, Ga. He died trying to make the school I had attended, and the school my son would later attend, a safer place in which to learn.
While you might not think of them as the first line of defense against terrorists or murderers, school resource officers (SROs) serve an important function in the community. And they are often the first ones to come to the rescue in crisis situations on campus. While school resource officer programs have become fairly common in many areas of the country, there are numerous communities where they have yet to be established. In some instances, lack of funding has been a roadblock, while in others, political hurdles or simple ignorance of the need for such a program in area schools has been a problem.
For those communities dedicated to the creation of a new program or desiring to improve an existing program, there are a few pointers that have proven to be valuable.
What purpose do school resource officers serve and why are they relevant to other officers in more traditional roles? SROs keep the community safe and help other police officers do their jobs.
Surveys among parents and students continually rank school safety as their most pressing concern, but because many communities are choosing to direct money and resources to other concerns, we are experiencing nothing short of a crisis in the confidence of school and police officials who protect our youth. As educational systems shape and define any nation, school safety has a major impact on us all. Whenever communities fail to protect their schools, school and law enforcement officials lose a significant amount of the trust, respect, and support of the public they serve.
The Flint (Mich.) Police Department led the way when it first assigned police officers to the city's schools in 1957, but the vast majority of communities in this and other countries were slower to respond to the dangers present in schools. Some regions are still reluctant to assign officers to this critical assignment. Intensive media coverage following a 1997 school shooting in Pearl, Miss., began to make the general public aware of the types of high-level violence that had been occurring in our schools for decades. By the time the catastrophic Columbine High School shooting occurred in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, our nation was frenzied with concern over the safety of our children.
People began looking at proven school safety strategies of every type. School Resource Officer (SRO) programs around the country, particularly in Texas, California, Florida, and Georgia, had demonstrated considerable success in reducing violence. School resource officers had even successfully thwarted a number of planned school shootings and bombings. Organizations like the National Association of School Resource Officers were working to promote professionalism in the specialized field of school law enforcement as many officers began to realize the SRO's role was a particularly challenging and important one.
Making the Grade
But the level of training and monetary resources available to SROs varies widely from state to state, as does the structure within which SROs work. While some operate their own police departments, others are members of a city department assigned to a local school.
One of the first questions to be answered when organizing a new SRO program is whether it will be best for the school system to contract for personnel through one or more local agencies, to form their own independent school system police force, or to utilize a combination of the two. Having assisted hundreds of school law enforcement programs around the nation get off the ground, I have found that the answer to this important question should be based on local needs and, unfortunately, on the political climate.
Some of the finest SRO operations can be found in school district police forces while many other equally excellent programs are school resource officer programs staffed by municipal and county law enforcement officers. While there are numerous exceptions, generally speaking, it is best to create an independent school district police force for larger school systems and to utilize personnel from existing agencies for smaller and mid-sized districts.
The development of a school district police department is often more cost efficient for larger districts and also typically affords a chance for officers to work in and with schools for longer periods of time. The utilization of city and/or county officers often requires less start-up capital and can provide smoother communication between school resource officers and officers in other assignments. When local law enforcement agencies provide officers to form a school policing unit, a formal contract and a memorandum of understanding will be required to ensure funding and to spell out key aspects of how officers will operate. For example, a clear understanding of when arrests will be made should be determined before assigning officers to campuses. Commitment from local leaders, the selection of a top flight unit leader, and clear goals for the unit, along with proper screening, selection, and training of officers, have more to do with success than which approach is utilized.
While many outside the world of the SRO still do not realize it, school-based officers in some areas are among the most highly trained, best equipped, and, in some instances, most highly paid officers in their region. Georgia is an example of such an area.
An examination of training records in Georgia's Bibb County Public School Police Department in 1999 reveals that district officers received an average of more than 10 months of academy training. Competitive salaries are often provided to reduce turnover and keep talented officers in place who are familiar with students, faculty, and how schools operate. In fact, four of the agencies in Georgia with the highest entry-level salaries are school district police departments, with one district police force starting officers at about $60,000 per year. Almost every school district in the state has an SRO program and many communities place a high value on the protection of their children as demonstrated by the level of fiscal support for their SRO programs.
Not every school resource officer program is so lucky. Those that are make full use of the funds and community support they receive.