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There are no national training standards for school-based officers, and in many cases no state standards, meaning crisis response can vary widely from place to place.
Proposed legislation would mandate national training standards for school resource officers, providing a baseline of instruction for law enforcement officers regularly confronted with some of the most challenging situations on the job.
School resource officers, or SROs, are typically sworn officers, usually armed, who are assigned to protect one or more schools. In some municipalities they’re police; in others, they’re sheriff’s deputies.
The way they’re trained, along with the very definition of the position, is left to the individual law enforcement agency, which means standards vary from place to place. There are no national standards, and in many cases no state standards, for SRO training, nor is there a national oversight body that governs the training or selection of the officers.
This means that individual SROs, when faced with a school shooting or other crisis, may have vastly different responses. It also means that many aren't trained specifically to work with students, including tactics like de-escalation, education in childhood development and bullying, and how to spot signs and symptoms of trauma, according to Elizabeth Englander, head of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.
“Stopping school violence before it ever begins relies heavily on the training that school resource officers ... receive or don’t receive,” Englander wrote in a March op-ed. “Yet despite a high level of consensus among researchers and criminal justice experts that school resource officers should undergo specialized training, few of the 19,000 SROs in the United States are in fact trained.”
The School Watch and Tactics (SWAT) Act, introduced last month, aims to change that. If passed, the bill “would direct the Departments of Justice and Education to develop a set of best practices for resource officers,” according to a statement from U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor. That process would include consulting with state and local law enforcement, but the national training standards would ultimately be set by the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of Education, among others.
A related bill, which passed the House this month, would collect data about the number of school resource officers in each public school.
There is currently no definitive SRO census, as school-based officers are not tracked in any national database and police departments and schools are not required to report on their staffing levels. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates that 20 percent of all K-12 schools—public and private—have an SRO on campus, but a recent survey from the National Center for Education Statistics places the number far higher, at 42 percent, up 10 percent from a decade before.
Combined, the two pieces of legislation are designed to give a clearer picture of schools’ current security and to streamline the training process going forward.
“He views these two bills as the foundation of a larger effort to employ officers with tactical training as well as school resource training in schools,” Andrew David, a spokesman for Higgins, told Route Fifty in an interview. “We certainly have our ideas, but we’re leaving it at the discretion of those two agencies.”
Training standards for SROs vary across the country, both at the state and local levels.
Ohio, for example, has no required training or even any requirement that an SRO be a full-fledged police officer. Schools there can use the title to refer to anyone, including unarmed security guards with no police training.
In Louisiana, schools can have officers assigned to schools, but they must be certified by a “nationally accredited school resource officer program or a state school resource officer training program certified by the Council on Peace Officer Standards and Training.”
Calcasieu Parish, located between Houston and Lafayette, Louisiana, interprets those standards more stringently. In addition to adhering to the state requirements, SROs with the sheriff’s office must train for an additional 16 hours per year in active-shooter live-scenario training, a 40-hour crisis intervention training and meet with supervisors and lieutenants 12 times per year to discuss policies, procedures and best practices.
SROs are also not mandatory in North Carolina. The first school resource officer program began there in Charlotte in 1969 and expanded beginning in 1993, when then-Gov. James Hunt established the North Carolina Center for the Prevention of School Violence to promote installing police in high schools and middle schools across the state.
This month, the state moved toward mandated training standards when the Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission voted to require all SROs to undergo training authorized by the North Carolina Justice Academy, a training center that first added SRO-specific curriculum in 1994.
That training is in addition to the state-mandated 24 hours for all law enforcement officers. In High Point, a mid-size city near the middle of the state, officers—including SROs—average 100 hours of training per year regardless of which division they work in.
On top of that, SROs attend job-specific conferences each year. Their supervisors may also coordinate school-specific training opportunities, but the bedrock of training in High Point relates to general policing.
“One of the principles of our training is that regardless of where you work in this department, if you are a sworn officer you should be able to interject yourself or help in any situation or incident and be on the same page with any other officer,” Lt. Curtis Cheeks, public information officer for the High Point Police Department, told Route Fifty.
That training process was tested in December, when a teen fired a gun inside of a High Point high school. No one was injured and the school was quickly placed on lockdown while the SRO there coordinated with outside officers.
“The SRO was there on the scene, obviously, but was able to quickly relay information to all of the officers responding,” Cheeks said. “They knew what they were expected to do and what their role was. The goal for our training is for everyone to be on the same page regardless of department.”
Why Training Matters
The specifics of training are important, as different standards can influence the way that SROs react during a crisis, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which has its own training program and supports both pieces of proposed legislation.
“Not every officer that works in a school is selected the same way or trained the same way,” Canady told Route Fifty. “When you look at two of the more recent high-profile shootings—Parkland and Maryland—there were two very different types of responses, and part of the reason for that is, I believe, an inconsistency in training methods and an inconsistency in selection process for officers that are going to work in schools.”
In Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School, a student killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day. While the shooting unfolded an armed school resource officer took a position near one of the school buildings, but officials said he never entered the facility. He was suspended without pay the following week and resigned shortly after.
A month later, a student shot two other students at Great Mills High School in Maryland before being stopped by an armed school resource officer, who responded to the scene in less than a minute, according to police reports.
It’s unclear how much training standards play into the differences, but because the nature of the school resource officer position is unique—requiring a blend of counseling, beat patrol and relationship-building—clarifying and standardizing training requirements could help prevent future discrepancies in crisis reactions, Canady said.
“It’s the most unique assignment, hands down, of any law enforcement assignment. There’s nothing else like it,” he said. “And because of that, I believe … we all need to have some standardization, at least in the core components that these officers are trained in, and some standardization in how we select these officers.”
Endnote: Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.