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Bring on the SROs

The United States has a school shooting problem, and it’s a bigger problem by far than in any other country in the world. In 2014 the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis undertook a survey of school violence incidents worldwide and found that between 2000 and 2010, there were 57 incidents in 36 countries around the world that resulted in one or more people being killed or injured in a school. Some 28 of those incidents were in the U.S. So the U.S. was just one incident shy of having as many incidents as the next 35 countries combined.

It’s even worse than it sounds when one considers that the population of the U.S. was 309 million, while the population of the other countries combined was 3.8 billion. The vast majority of the U.S. incidents involved a gun. It’s far easier to get a handgun or semi-automatic weapon in the U.S. than any of the other countries in the survey. For the most part, our country has decided not to put any serious gun-control measures in place. So, one way schools are trying to confront school shooting incidents is with armed school resource officers (SROs) or school police officers (SPOs). (The former are employed by the police, the latter are employed by the schools.) 

Sullivan County Sheriff Mike Schiff discussed the issue at a meeting at the government center on May 3. He said that the school district in Middletown was going to re-institute SROs. But because the superintendent did not want to “choose winners and losers,” in the event of an active shooter incident, the district was budgeting to hire an SRO for each of the districts buildings.

Schiff said he and the district attorney recently visited the Sullivan West Board of Education and officials posed the following question: if something happened at the Jeffersonville elementary school campus, and the SRO was at the high school in Lake Huntington, how long would it take the SRO to get from one school to the other? The answer was that the SRO was probably not going to Jeffersonville. Schiff said “If there’s an active shooter or some incident in Jeffersonville, the high school would probably go into lockdown as probably would other schools in the county.”

He said, “The response for that would be whoever we can get—state police, I’m sure that local police would respond outside their districts, everybody would roll, but the Sullivan SRO would probably not go there.”

So, if you’re a school superintendent or school board member, and one of your most important functions is to protect the safety and well being of students and staff, expanding the budget to include an SRO for every building is going to be a serious consideration. At the moment in Sullivan County, only the school districts in Eldred and Roscoe do not have an SRO. In Pennsylvania, Wallenpaupack and Delaware Valley districts have SROs and Western Wayne and Wayne Highlands have SPOs.

 The chair of the Sullivan County Legislature, Luis Alvarez, who during his career in law enforcement was an SRO, said, “It takes a very dedicated person to be an SRO; it’s not an easy job dealing with kids on a daily basis… It’s more work than being on the road.”

Schiff added that, 20 years ago, people would have objected to putting a police officer in a school. “Why would you need it?” But these days, school officials are more likely to question whether they are doing everything possible to protect the students, teachers and staff of the district.

He said he thinks the governor could take steps to make it easier for police departments in the state to provide SROs to schools. Schiff said, “I think we have to lobby the governor for the ability to give a waiver for people to be an SRO, so that we can hire retired police officers without a lot of fanfare and put them in a school. That would allow us to hire people without doing the training.”

He added that young people going to work for the department are not interested in becoming SROs. He said, “Most of the young people that come to us don’t want to be in a school, they want to be out there chasing and arresting bad guys; they took this job to be police officers. If I have to start coming up with five or six more bodies to go into a school, I don’t have people with the interest, and I prefer not having to put people where they don’t want to be doing [the] job.

SROs in the U.S. came into being as a police innovation in the 1950s but greatly expanded in the 1990s in the wake of school shootings. Currently, about a third of school districts have SROs. But the SROs come with some controversy, as in a 2009 study by Matthew Theriot of the University of Tennessee, which found that more student arrests occurred in school with SROs than in schools without them, but the corresponding number of students who were charged with a crime was the same.

Still, hiring SROs or SPOs seems like one of the few steps that can be taken against school violence that can’t be thwarted by the NRA, so it makes sense to do what we can to move these programs forward.

 

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