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The need for school resource officers.

The city of Meriden, Connecticut, is a diverse community of about 58,000 residents approximately 20 miles north of New Haven and 20 miles south of the state capital Hartford. As the current mayor of Meriden, a school administrator, and a former teacher, education is one of my top priorities. In the midst of the accountability movement, when school systems reveal standardized test results of student progress to communities, not enough students challenge themselves to meet school proficiency standards. Further, increased suspensions and expulsions in schools confirm the need for discipline reform.

Educators and politicians continue to look for creative measures to keep children in school. While some practitioners proclaim graduated systems of discipline, training for teachers, and modification of zero-tolerance policies, I recommend the federally funded program COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services), which provides school resource officers (SROs). These certified police officers provide law enforcement and law-related teaching and counseling to students at public high schools. This approach requires a fundamental belief that school violence does not exist--all violence is community violence. Communities need collaboration between schools, police, and the juvenile justice system.

Legal Concerns

Facing increased pressure from concerned parents and educators regarding the need for discipline reform, the federal government and state legislators have changed existing laws and created new ones that, in turn, have required school districts to issue mandatory suspensions and expulsions. For example, federal law changes in the mid-1990s mandated school districts to take specific disciplinary actions for weapon violations. In 1995, Connecticut legislators expanded the definition of a student possessing a deadly weapon. As a result, these changes have increased the number of suspensions and expulsions. In 2001, the Connecticut General Assembly adopted a new law to decrease the dropout rates in schools by changing the legal dropout age from 16 to 18. Students under the age of 18 now need the written consent of their parent or guardian to drop out of school. But, what will all of these legal changes do to keep kids actively engaged in school? Federal and state legal requirements often establish barriers that make it difficult for schools to find alternative discipline solutions.

Behavior Management

Behavioral problems can be treated similar to academic problems--in a nonpunitive atmosphere with understanding, respect, and patience. (1) This discipline process teaches students who are acting as a disturbance in the school environment how to think of ways to reach their goals without violating the rights of others. (2) When teachers and school administrators develop strict discipline policies and pressure students to perform, many students push back and exhibit counter control. We must treat people according to the way they are designed; by presuming that we can deal with all students in the same way, we ignore their individuality and, in essence, set them up for failure. Educators and law enforcement must work together to develop a new way of operating--a method of deterring unnecessary disturbances.

The Study

After I interviewed SROs and surveyed school superintendents, police supervisors, principals, and SROs from 10 communities, my results showed that the SRO helps provide a safe environment in today's public high schools. In particular, respondents believed that a qualified SRO provides law enforcement, as well as law-related, counseling and teaching. All respondents in the study perceived that SROs fill an important role in their schools and all students can benefit from their presence. The community case studies revealed that the role of the SRO and the support for the SRO does not vary between cities or towns or affluent or economically deprived communities.

While my research noted the importance of SROs functioning as law enforcement officers in their schools, it did not address the SRO's role in daily discipline. Disciplining high school students has become increasingly difficult. School administrators hire assistant principals and deans of students to address daily discipline needs. According to one poll of the public's attitudes toward public schools, violence, gangs, and a lack of discipline are schools' biggest problems. (3) Seventy-five percent of respondents believed that school police officers offer the most effective school violence prevention program. (4) Further, 65 percent of Americans surveyed thought that stationing a police officer in schools would reduce school violence. (5) The presence of SROs in schools makes students, teachers, and staff members feel safer and deters acts of violence. (6)

SROs should be involved with both in-school and out-of-school suspensions, and they should work with school administrators to create alternatives to out-of-school suspensions. SROs should monitor school- and community-related service projects to acquaint themselves with students and assist school administrators with discipline. Additionally, SROs should meet with the in-school suspension group during the day for a period of group law-related counseling. Students are less likely to get in trouble if they understand and appreciate the consequences of their behavior beforehand.

SRO programs offer an opportunity for school officials to proactively protect their schools and improve their educational environment. School administrators should encourage parents to volunteer for community events, attend demonstrations and workshops about neighborhood safety and current activities, and watch for signs of trouble. Although SROs are the only individuals in the school setting who have the authority and ability to make arrests, an SRO's primary purpose is to deter students from trouble and encourage them to be active, positive participants in their school communities.

My research revealed the need for the school, police, and parents to work together to prevent school violence, and the SRO proves an important link between the three entities. Schools reflect society; if crime is occurring on the street, it also is happening in schools. Tragedies like Columbine can happen at any school; therefore, concerned citizens should take the necessary proactive measures to include an SRO on their school staff.

Data also revealed the need for police personnel to see the SRO's role in a new light. SROs are community police officers who work in the school community. With this new setting comes unique responsibilities and duties. "Having an officer in school can be a useful safety tool and offer a sense of security, but I think it's essential that the cops be trained to work with children." (7) As a law enforcement officer, law-related counselor, and law-related educator, (8) SROs become proactive participants in community efforts to ensure safe and orderly schools. Selected officers should collaborate with school administrators to create secure environments in which teachers can teach and students can learn. Educators and law enforcement personnel both maintain control of people and situations by enforcing rules/laws to keep our society (school or community) in order. Teachers and SROs can teach collaborative lessons on topics from the Bill of Rights to the importance of physical fitness; together, they can coach athletic teams and head school clubs as well.

Conclusion

The growing number of SRO programs indicates that communities are searching for effective methods to maintain secure schools and curb student violence. Deterrents, such as metal detectors and security guards, have proven insufficient in dealing with students who feel alienated from their peers or adults or in preventing intruders from disrupting schools. Boards of education are realizing that a more long-term, all-encompassing approach to student alienation and school safety has become necessary.

For many communities, school resource officer programs constituted the first time schools and police worked collaboratively to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Educational professionals must realize that community agencies, including law enforcement, often can offer expertise in many areas, including teaching and counseling. Educators and police personnel must view and use SROs as a resource because when they share their knowledge and expertise, students receive the best possible services and strengthen communities.

SRO programs present an opportunity for schools to open their doors to other community agencies and professionals. Law enforcement administrators and educational leaders face the challenge of continuing to search for creative methods of collaboration with other social systems in their communities. We must ensure that our students remain in school programs and stay out of trouble--effective SRO programs prove a viable means to accomplish this feat.

Endnotes

(1) For more information on Edward E. Ford's Responsible Thinking Process, visit http://www.responsiblethinking.com.

(2) Ibid.

(3) The 28th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, retrieved on July 15, 2003, from http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kpoll285.htm.

(4) Youth Violence in Connecticut Schools, The Connecticut Association of Schools Bulletin, May 1999.

(5) Dr. Steven Berkowitz "What Role for Cops in School?" Record-Journal, December 28, 1999, 11.

(6) Center for the Prevention of School Violence.

(7) Supra note 5.

(8) Supra note 6.

By Mark D. Benigni, Ed.D

Dr. Benigni serves as an assistant principal at Berlin High School in Meriden, Connecticut, and is the current mayor of Meriden.

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Title Annotation:Perspective
Author:Benigni, Mark D.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:1460
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