As a 10-year school resource officer (SRO), Sgt. D.J. Schoeff has worked with thousands of students. But it's not the disciplinary actions or the law enforcement piece that he — or his students — are impacted by most.
A student Schoeff knew from his work at Carmel Clay Schools in Indiana had been arrested on the street. Schoeff said the student came up to him and acknowledged his wrongdoing and the consequences he'd face. But, as Shoeff recounted, "'The biggest thing,' the student told him, 'is I'm really sorry I disappointed you.'"
"To me, that's the longest-term impact — not a ticket or a detention," said Schoeff, who also serves as the 1st vice president of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). "To me, [that's] hope."
At least one on-site resource officers like Schoeff was in 42% of U.S. public schools during the 2015-16 school year — a 10% jump from a decade earlier — according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And with talks of federal funding for these security officials, as well as state proposals surrounding SROs, it's likely this trend will continue.
But while the thought behind hiring SROs — career law enforcement officers who get deployed by a police department to work with a school — is fairly straightforward, disputes have ignited debate over their effects. Some fear a police presence, on top of existing efforts to harden schools, creates a prison-like environment — especially for students from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds. Others say these figures can scare kids and negatively impact their learning experiences. And additional skeptics say if SROs aren’t well-suited or well-trained to work in a school, their effects won’t be positive.
As SROs’ presence continues to rise, so do calls to make sure they’re properly equipped to have a positive impact. In addition to security-related skills, experts say these officials should be trained in social-emotional competencies or social-emotional learning (SEL).
“They have to be well-balanced,” Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), told Education Dive. “They’ve got to be able to go into a school and have a law enforcement role, but also be involved in the educational process.”
The benefits of SEL
SEL encapsulates what some call "soft," or non-academic, skills, including collaboration, self-reflection and creativity. More schools and education experts have embraced these ideas as a core piece of the learning process — not only because it helps boost academic achievement and school climate, but also because it can spur higher levels of success beyond a student’s schooling.
SEL is receiving increased attention in the classroom, but these competencies are also emphasized in training an SRO. Instead of reprimanding students or simply focusing on the physical security of a school building — which doesn’t make schools inherently safer — learning and implementing these skills can help them provide positive reinforcement, support students and contribute to a more caring school community — not to mention making the SRO feel more connected to a school.
“It’s so important that we see them as an employee of a school district,” said Katie Eklund, an assistant professor of school psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who’s also been a school psychologist and school social worker. “It’s important for them to think that SROs are here as a resource.”
"It's easy, from a law enforcement aspect, to give them a ticket and walk away ... but we want to figure out why they are doing this and what's going on in their life."
Sgt. D.J. Schoeff
School resource officer, Carmel High School
Canady added that understanding these competencies is part of how law enforcement officers have to approach working in a school differently than they would typical police work.
“You can’t go into a school environment and approach it the same way you would situations out on the streets,” he said. “You have to understand that 2,000 teens are going to behave like 2,000 teens [and] … you can’t just arrest your way out of that.”
Schoeff cited vaping, which is increasing in popularity among adolescents, as an opportunity for more than just discipline. "It's easy, from a law enforcement aspect, to give them a ticket and walk away," he said, "but we want to figure out why they are doing this and what's going on in their life."
In practice, SROs with this kind of training have proven to benefit the students they’re serving. One New Jersey principal, for example, realized that when SROs participated in constructive intervention processes and talked to students about the legal and moral implications of their bad behavior, bullying and suspensions both decreased. And in one Virginia school, SROs started an indoor soccer program, aiming to bond with and mentor students — and they have.
“As far as SEL, I would see drawbacks if SROs weren’t properly trained,” Eklund said. “It’s a missed opportunity.”
What SRO training looks like
NASRO estimates that there are between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs in service across the nation, and as the major national SRO membership organization, many of these officers go through its training courses, Canady said. The organization offers multiple options, including a fundamental five-day, 40-hour program aimed at serving law enforcement officers or other school safety officials who want to work in an educational environment.
This basic training, according to NASRO’s website, stresses three main areas: the function of law enforcement, mentoring students and guest speaking, which refers to instruction and classroom management in teaching students about the law. Canady added that this program has a “pretty diverse curriculum” that delves into topics including the adolescent brain, special education, implicit bias, and violence and victimization.
In addition to this course, NASRO offers other, more specialized programs that touch on topics including adolescent behavior, development and mental health, as well as the impact of trauma and the role of design in safety. And other organizations, including for-profits and state or local groups, offer additional trainings for SROs, many of which include units related to social-emotional competencies.
For example, Minneapolis Public Schools, as of June 2017, had 16 SROs who — in addition to completing other training requirements — spent 8-24 hours per year learning about school-related issues, including positive school-wide engagement, SEL and equity. And in the Atlanta Public Schools, the district’s SROs served as law enforcement officers, teachers and counselors, which is helping to break the school-to-prison pipeline, reduce student arrests and increase feelings of safety among school administrators, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen wrote in a blog post last year.
Schoeff has taken several training courses, both with NASRO and through other outlets, over the course of his career and has been teaching NASRO training programs since 2012. He said his preparation for working at a school and with kids, including learning about SEL, has helped him on a daily basis.
"Understanding what kids are experiencing in today’s world, and what life is like for them, can help us help them emotionally and educationally in terms of making sure they can be successful," he said.
‘A complete lack of consistency’
Despite the existence of multiple training opportunities, there’s a catch: NASRO’s training, along with that of several other organizations, is often optional — though Canady said "it shouldn't be."
Despite federal-level officials recommending that SROs receive "as much pre-service training as possible ... as well as continued training and proper monitoring," at least 29 states and the District of Columbia don’t have any existing laws or regulations concerning the certification or training of SROs, according to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. And among those that do, there’s a broad range of what those trainings actually require, with few specifying that these officers need to know how to work in a school and with students.
In addition, SROs can work for different entities — sometimes, they’re a local police officer who’s dispatched to serve at a school, while other times, they’re actual employees of a school district or a school district’s police force. And, in some cases, their employment stems from a partnership between the two groups, ultimately leading to varying responsibilities, expectations and requirements.
At the end of the day, all of these officials are certified to be police officers, but not all of them are getting the additional training that teaches them how to work with children and in educational environment.
At the end of the day, the No. 1 goal for any SRO is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth — not just guarding the door for an active shooter.
Executive Director, National Association of School Resource Officers
“Sometimes, they’re as good as a sheriff’s training,” said Leonard Dietzen, general counsel to the Florida Police Chiefs Association who specializes in education law. “There’s going to be different approaches and different amounts of money. There’s a complete lack of consistency."
Canady said the problem doesn't just boil down to the training SROs get before they can serve in a school. It's also a "perception issue," he said.
"People think, 'Now that I'm trained, I don't need to be trained anymore,'" he said. "There can never be enough training. It's an ongoing issue — and it's not just about the basics."
In November 2015, The Atlantic reported that only 12 states required student-specific training for SROs, but since then, more have taken this step. In 2019 legislative sessions, additional states are proposing mandated training requirements that include social-emotional elements.
"There should be absolutely no option and no officer that works inside a school without getting some sort of specialized training," Schoeff said, referring to training that includes social-emotional elements. "It can’t just be X hours of training. It needs to be with people with this expertise."
Washington, for instance, is weighing a bill that would require SROs to be trained in topics including adolescent development, students with disabilities and children's civil rights. New Mexico has a similar proposal, which would mandate SROs to be equipped with "tools to be a positive role model for youth, including mentoring and informal counseling techniques." And Nebraska's SRO requirements bill stresses "cultural fluency" and "problem-solving," among other skills.
"It’s a different world than it was two years ago," Dietzen said. "It's up to schools to step up and meet the challenge."