After the multitude of mass shootings over the last few decades, school liaison officers have become an increasingly vital part of law enforcement.
Most recently, an Oxford High School police officer and a responding deputy were responsible for disarming and arrested a school shooter who killed three people and wounded eight others, and probably would have done more harm had police not intervened when they did.
The shooting has caused schools to consider adding more police officers to their staff.
Fowlerville Police Department Sgt. Jeff Soli said that being a school resource officer (SRO) is “the most important position in the police department.” Soli is the president of Schools, Educators, Police Liaison Association in Michigan, a group that runs trainings and active shooter drills with schools and law enforcement agencies.
Soli has worked as a school resource officer for nearly 25 years, patrolling the campuses of Fowlerville schools.
When he first started in the 90s, he was the first school police officer in the county. Within a year, most county schools had opened similar positions.
Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association for School Resource Officers based in Alabama, regularly trains and works with SROs. Canady told the Detroit Free Press that the association trained 14 SROs with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office – the county where Oxford High School is located.
“It is the most unique assignment” in departments, Canady said, due to the different nature of the job from regular police work. SROs must carry out law enforcement duties, give classroom talks, and also counsel students.
When training SROs, the national association focuses a lot on adolescent brain development, mental health, and “relationship-based policing.”
“You can’t police in that environment the way you would do it on the streets, where you would be dealing with more adults,” Canady said.
The biggest challenge SROs face is preparing for school shootings. Because SROs often work alone, they have to be the “best tactical officer in the department,” according to Canady.
When SROs first began deploying to schools in 1958, most of the work was to improve relationships between teens and police, and focused largely on ant-gang and anti-drug work, according to the Police Foundation. In the 90s, after school shootings became a nationwide epidemic, SROs became a vital security measure.
An annual school safety report published in 2020 by the Dept. of Education and Dept. of Justice found that SROs have increased dramatically over the past two decades. In 2005, around 42% of public schools had law enforcement staff. That number has increased to around 61% in 2017-18.
The Detroit public school system even has its own police department devoted to keeping schools safe – the Detroit Public Schools Community District Police Department.
Due to recent staffing shortages, some SROs have been pulled out of school duty and reassigned to street patrol.