School Climate & Safety

Most Principals Have No Say in Choosing Police for Their Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — December 11, 2019 8 min read
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Principals, you get to hire the teachers you want. You play a role in choosing the support staff assigned to your schools.

But most of you are rarely involved in selecting the school resource officers—sworn law enforcement officials who often carry guns—who work in your buildings and regularly interact with your students and staff.

That’s a big mistake, according to some experts, because cutting principals out of that crucial choice can lead to a very consequential mismatch from the get-go.

“If you are not engaged as a school administrator in the selection of the school resource officers, you pretty much have to take what you get,” said Sheldon Greenberg, a former police officer who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“You are shooting the odds that there’s going to be a good fit and a good long-term relationship, which is what we want.”

Good SROs and Bad SROs

As a growing number of school districts respond to fears about school shootings, they are expanding security measures that often include assigning police to schools. But while the impetus for doing so is protection from would-be assailants, SROs are far more likely to be involved in more mundane issues of daily school life. That’s of grave concern to civil rights advocates, who cite research that has shown black and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities, bear a disproportionate share of school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement when SROs are in schools.

Keep scrolling for:
4 Questions Principals Can Ask School Resource Officers
How Principals Can Decide If an SRO Is Right for Their School

Not every school has or needs an SRO, Greenberg said. And in many cases, schools are under pressure from legislators to add armed personnel to their campuses. Before doing so, leaders need to understand how their communities feel about having a police officer assigned to the school and how they will handle concerns over students’ negative interactions with SROs.

Principals, Greenberg says, are the experts on their students, their staff, and their school’s culture, making them best positioned to decide what attributes they want in an SRO. And those decisions around the SROs who are placed in schools carry high stakes, as recent violent incidents make clear.

Within two days earlier this month, there were two officer-involved shootings in Wisconsin high schools. In both cases, the officers responded to armed students and their swift action averted injuries and death to students and staff in the school, authorities said.

But just a few weeks prior, school resource officers in Florida were caught on video violently mishandling students.

In Broward County, an officer was arrested after he was shown on surveillance video grabbing a 15-year-old girl by the neck and slamming her to the floor at a school for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities. The video showed that the girl had purposely bumped the officer in the back of the knee while he was using his phone. Several minutes later, he grabbed her.

In another incident, an Orange County school resource officer was fired after he was caught on videotape pulling a middle school girl’s hair while restraining her.

‘No Engagement at All’

Greenberg, who is working on a paper about the important questions that school and district administrators should contemplate and ask before school resource officers are hired, said principals can do a responsible review of potential SRO candidates without digging through every single complaint in the officer’s file.

“I wouldn’t recommend that—and I don’t think legally you can do that,” he said. “But we have to [ensure that the principal’s role is expanded to] beyond nothing, which is where we are in many systems right now—no engagement at all.”

For principals concerned about having a safe and welcoming climate in their schools, how do they ensure that officers who may display violent tendencies do not work in their schools?

Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which has developed best practices for SROs and has trained nearly 20,000 people, including law enforcement officers, school administrators, and others since 2014, said collaboration between law enforcement and leading players in K-12 schools is essential.

He said superintendents, principals, assistant principals, mental-health counselors, and school nurses should all contribute to SRO selection decisions.

One must-have, Canady said, is a memorandum of understanding between the district and the local law enforcement agency that spells out things like the experiences the officer should have, roles and responsibilities, and to whom the SRO reports. Principals and school staff should be involved in crafting that document even if it’s signed by the superintendent and the local police chief or sheriff, Canady said. (Some larger districts have their own police departments.)

When he supervised school resources officers while working with the Hoover Police Department in Hoover, Ala., Canady often asked principals to sit in on interviews.

“I always liked having a principal [there] because there are things that they might see that I am not quite seeing... ,” Canady said. “They know a little more I think, [about] who the right fit can be in that environment, who students are going to most likely connect in a positive way with.”

Canady said SROs, first and foremost, need to like kids and, ideally, already have experiencing working with youths. They also have to want the job. While the drive to put more school resource officers in schools is coming in large measure as a response to fears about shootings, most SROs will never encounter a school shooter on the job. Their effectiveness will lie mostly in the relationships and trust they build with staff and students, he said.

But in addition to understanding the officer’s background in working or volunteering with children, Canady said school leaders and law enforcement agencies should also look at officers’ training.

“We have to make sure they are trained in understanding things like special needs students,” Canady said. “That they are trained along the issues of implicit bias. That they are trained in school-based law, what that looks like, how law applies in a school-based environment. They are trained on understanding the adolescent brain.”

Still, there is no single script for screening for the best fit, as every school has a unique profile.

“A great officer who fits one high school may not be the right fit for the high school right down the road,” Greenberg said.

When SROs have gotten into trouble for their interactions with students, oftentimes it’s revealed they had a record of misconduct in their prior law enforcement positions, and school leaders often say they didn’t know about that troubled history.

Those scenarios have raised questions about whether school officials should have access to a police officer’s disciplinary record to see complaints levied against him or her, particularly if those complaints involve children.

Both Canady and Greenberg said they don’t think it’s legal in most states for school officials to see an officer’s personnel file from previous jobs and they agree that information should remain private. But Greenberg said that no officer with a history of repeated complaints or arrests of students of color should be working in schools.

Canady said he believes no one with a criminal history should be working as any kind of police officer, but he cautions districts and schools from barring anyone with a disciplinary action in his or her file from working in a school. Each officer’s record should be examined individually, he said. What if the incident happened when the officer was early in his or her career and has had an exemplary record since, including a stellar record of working with children, said Canady.

School officials who have a trusting relationship with local law enforcement can gain assurances that the police agency would screen out officers whose histories may not make them a good fit for working in a school, Canady and Greenberg said.

4 Questions Principals Can Ask School Resource Officers

  • Does the officer have a history of working with children or youths, such as in a youth explorer program or sport league?
  • How have they helped youths through their work?
  • Has that experience led to changes in how they think about working with youths?
  • Does the officer have additional training that may be useful in schools, such as knowledge of a second language, sign language, mental health training, experience working with students with disabilities, and any other specialized training or courses that would help in a school environment?

How Principals Can Decide If an SRO Is Right for Their School:

Planning:

• Find out what criteria will be used to select the school resource officer.

• Ask if there is a formal job description and what role principals will play in developing that.

• Know if principals get to interview a candidate and who will make the final choice.

Selection:

• Consider the school community and whether the officer’s race, ethnicity, and gender are important.

• Find out what information principals can review about the officer’s past disciplinary record.

• If possible, have the SRO candidate visit the school as part of interview process.

Duties and Responsibilities:

• Hash out the SRO’s specific duties and who they report to daily.

• Plan how conflicts between the SRO and members of the school community will be resolved.

• Decide who will review the SRO’s job performance and what recourse principals will have to remove an officer who falls short of expectations.

• Establish clear boundaries and expectations around what, if any, role the SRO will play in student discipline. Set clear policies for when or if the SRO make arrests.

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