‘It’s not a sunset tour’: School resource officers in the active shooter age

It’s been a solemn year for school resource officers. As students poured out of classrooms last week, they wrapped a school year fraught by two high-level school shootings—one in which the officers were hailed as heroes; another in which the officer was branded a ‘coward.’ Smaller events were stopped by school officers in Maryland, Illinois, and in one famous case, a science teacher with a basketball and a wicked chest pass.

The job of school resource officer isn’t one for your paunchy beat cop transitioning into retirement. It is a complicated and physically-demanding job that requires tactical training, technological fluency, and a knack for building personal relationships with adults and students. Politicians are responding to this new reality, pouring millions of dollars into school safety budgets this year for new infrastructure, integrated systems and, yes, the hiring and training of school officers. Florida’s new education budget includes $97.5 million more for programs that help train new school resources officers. North Carolina’s $35 million budget earmarks $12 million alone for hiring and training new officers.

“It’s not what we call a sunset tour,” said Keith Noble, Director of Pinkerton’s Miami office. “You want to send your brightest, your best, most talented that are actively physically able to execute the mandates of the job.” Often, Noble said, districts install officers who are past their prime because “it’s not a priority.” That’s a mistake, he said.

Hard targets, soft skills

 “This job’s never been busier,” said Officer Don Bridges, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. In a single day, an officer might walk 20,000 steps—“cardiovascular endurance is everything”—present a crisis plan to students and faculty, coordinate extra police presence with the city force, flag an issue with the principal and hear out student concerns. “This is not the same job I started in 1996.”

Bridges founded Baltimore County’s School Resource Officer Program, responsible for the 25th largest school district in the country that year. In 1999, the Columbine High School Massacre changed the face of school policing. “What we learned from Columbine was that we can no longer wait.” Instead of securing a perimeter and waiting for city SWAT, school officers had to charge in.

Of the 1500 officers that NASRO trains each year, nearly all are armed, he said. “Most of our training deals with being able to draw our weapon and fire on target,” Bridges said. In May, a school resource officer in Maryland drew quickly and fired on a gunman just as the shooting started. Just two people were injured in the event.

That being said, a school resource officers’ sidearm isn’t his most potent weapon. Charisma, political savvy and an understanding of young minds are more important in day-to-day success. Adolescent psychology is an integral part of NASRO’s 40-hour intensive training, said Bridges. So is verbal de-escalation, a tactic more likely used in normal day-to-day policing. When an officer earns the community’s trust, they’re more likely to come forward with important information, he said.

“You have to have that dynamic personality that acts like a chief or a sheriff in a community that we call a school,” said Bridges. Officers have to have a sense of ownership in the school, be able to communicate with students and have an open-door relationship with the principal. “If that principal has a cell phone, I have to have the number.”

 

Systems backup

 But to fully reimagine the school resource officer, Noble said, you have to look past the officer himself. Integrated systems and intelligence operations are crucial to rounding out a school safety team.

First up is what Noble called “open source” intelligence, the monitoring of publicly available information like social media postings and other online information. Public security companies like his employer, Pinkerton, can geofence—set up a virtual perimeter around a particular geographic area that combs the internet for social media mentions or other criminal activity that could affect the school.

That sort of intel would have been crucial in Parkland, Florida, Santa Fe, Texas and in other shootings like the South Carolina church shooting, where assailants’ social media posts forewarned their actions. Noble argues that school resource officers themselves shouldn’t be responsible for those services. Instead, analytics partners should be contracted, particularly for larger school districts.

Still, resource officers will need to develop a certain level of technological fluency to understand and help optimize the integrated systems being installed in schools now. Access control, CCTV systems, weapons scanning systems and other technologies will soon be part of many school resource officers’ toolkit.

“As the SRO in the school, you want to make sure that your cameras are on the proper doors facing the correct way,” said Bridges. “and then you have to know, well how long is it that this surveillance system is going to store this video.”

Those that don’t have the training should take it up the chain of command themselves, in some cases even requesting services from the Department of Homeland Security, Bridges said.

“In this position, training is every day,” Bridges said. “Technology changes every minute. You’ve gotta’ stay abreast as to what is out there.”

 

 

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