School Climate & Safety

Most Principals Have No Say in Choosing Police for Their Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — December 11, 2019 8 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.