When talking to school administrators about targeted violence prevention, the topic of school resource officers (SROs) often comes up. Unfortunately, a common misperception in these circles is that SROs contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This misperception, along with other stereotypes held against law enforcement, often hinders the creation of a safer school environment. There are three key ways in which the presence of an SRO can significantly increase school safety and play a role in the prevention of targeted violence: planning, detection and disruption.
According to National School Safety and Security Services and other research, when SROs are asked about emergency preparedness in the area of targeted violence, they consistently report the inadequacy or sheer inexistence of school emergency response plans. SROs also tend to report a lack of ongoing emergency preparedness and active shooter response training and inadequate target hardening. If allowed, SROs can be instrumental in developing better active shooter emergency preparedness and responses and closing the gaps in safety they see.
Research has consistently shown that school shooters researched, planned and prepared over weeks and months before perpetration of their crimes, as presented by J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. In addition, attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a threat. Thus, it is highly important that warning behaviors are both noticed and taken seriously. Part of the reason that reporting systems have been shown to be so effective in violence prevention is because they harness the power of dozens or hundreds of detectors — the students themselves. SROs play a vital part in this process as well, keeping a keen eye on behaviors that otherwise may go unnoticed and unreported. Studies show that SROs are able to spot potential problems (such as students carrying weapons) and provide referrals and assistance to struggling students.
Just as important as detection is the disruption of a concerning behavior. Once on the radar, it is important that an intervention is put in place to address and monitor the concern. School threat assessment teams often do themselves a disservice by not including SROs in threat management meetings and plans. There are several ways in which SROs can play a vital role in the disruption of a student’s trajectory to violence outside of simply making a referral on the administrative level. In the moment, the use of crisis intervention techniques by SROs has been shown to decrease incidents of violence. In the long term, SROs can play a vital preventative role by building relationships with students. Examination of thwarted school shootings showed that development of a positive relationship with students was more important to school safety than most other means, including gun control. Examples can be explored by reviewing published materials by Daniels, Royster, Vecchi and Pshenishny, 2010; Moscardino, Scrimin, Capello and Altoe, 2013; and Warnick, Johnson and Rocha, 2010. Finally, if an incident begins to unfold, the presence of an SRO guarantees the fastest response time.
School administrators often have other concerns about SROs based on a misperception or past negative experiences. I believe these concerns may be mitigated through better administrator and SRO training, teamwork and willingness to problem-solve. However, if our focus is on creating safer school environments, the role of the SRO should not be dismissed or overlooked.