School Resource Officers have been a staple in schools across the country for various reasons, but after the death of George Floyd, some are questioning the need.
In 2016-2017, 43 percent of public schools had an armed law enforcement officer present at least once a week, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
But recently the validity of officer presence is being questioned.
In Minneapolis, various school districts have suspended their school resource officer program and protesters in Charlottesville have demanded an end to their local program, according to reports from the Associated Press. The ends to these programs come as critics say the programs can lead to the criminalization of students of color.
But in York County and many other public school districts, the school resource officer program provides more than just an armed officer for protection, said Ron Montgomery, chief deputy with the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office. The program was created in conjunction with the “Virginia Rules” program from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, which has SROs teach students a variety of topics from dating violence to bullying.
Montgomery said the deputies are taught to act as mentors and rather than be assigned to the position, the York Poquoson Sheriff’s Office asks deputies to volunteer.
“It’s a job you volunteer for and that’s important because these are people that want to be there and develop those relationships,” he said. “They’re encouraged to act as mentors and make themselves accessible and approachable and that’s part of the great success in York County.”
An officer has to undergo additional training with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice before becoming an SRO . According to the VDCJ website, the training covers topics of partner roles, legal issues, working with adolescents and various strategies for success.
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice did not immediately respond for comment.
The SRO meets with administration at the school after the training to learn about the individual character of the school.
“So we have defined roles within the building,” Montgomery said. “Some places, there’s a crossover if a serious crime is committed, but we’re there to provide security and act as mentors and teachers. Each individual school principal has the flexibility to determine how they use the school resource officer.”
Each of the middle and high schools in York County have an SRO which Montgomery said helps provide additional security to the schools.
The SRO has a defined understanding at each school for what activities they will become involved in. Montgomery said the sheriff’s office is also constantly reevaluating the program to make it better each year.
“So each resource officer is assigned to a specific school for a year and we don’t move them around so they can learn the students and the staff,” Montgomery said. “They’re selected on their ability to establish those relationships, that’s why we don’t make anyone become an SRO, it’s a job you volunteer for.”
The program does come at a price.
Montgomery said each year the funding is a combined effort between the schools and the county, where the school agrees to reimburse the cost of the SRO’s salary. Montgomery said he didn’t have the total number of costs, but it would simply be the combined salaries of all the resource officers in the district.
He said he hopes the program will continue to grow with the schools to improve student experience.
“I think it’s an extremely valuable resource for the school division and the sheriff’s office,” Montgomery said. “I would be surprised if the school district didn’t say the same thing.”
A representtative for the York County School Division was unavailable for comment due to graduation ceremonies.
Williamsburg-James City County
WYDaily reached out to Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for Williamsburg-James City County Schools about the school resource officers.
“The school resources officers are actually sworn officers, and employees, of the local law enforcement agencies,” Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, wrote in an email. “Therefore, I would need to refer you to them for comment.”
Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the James City County Police Department, said the school resource officers are assigned at WJCC middle and high schools with duties ranging from going to school functions and providing security at schools to investigating crimes and talking to students, parents and staff about crime prevention and the criminal justice system.
“Counseling and mentoring students are also a routine part of the School Resource Officer’s duties,” she wrote. “SROs may also hold programs designed to build positive relationships between the police and youth in the community along with other duties as assigned.”
Officers also manage youth outreach programs, explain traffic laws and safety in Driver’s Education classes, conduct lessons on internet safety as well as bullying and suicide prevention, she added.
In the summer months once school is out, the officer goes on bike patrols and help with patrol as needed.
Williams said the cost is associated with a full-time officer but would not elaborate.
All police officers including the SROs are trained in implicit-bias and and attend cultural diversity training on a reoccurring basis, Williams said.
It’s unclear how often the cultural diversity training happens.
Williams said officers are trained on use of force including de-escalation on a “regular basis” and review or revise the department’s policies and training, too.
The department does not plan to end the SRO program at this time.
“There has not been a discussion about ending the SRO program in JCC,” she said. “We feel that the relationships built between officers and students, parents, and staff are beneficial and a have long-lasting impact.”
“The primary goal of the SRO program is not to make arrests in the schools,” she added. “The program is designed to provide a resource to students, parents, and staff, to educate students, to act as a mentor, to provide visibility as a form of crime prevention, and to assist administration when necessary.”
A representative from the Williamsburg Police Department was not immediately available for comment. The purpose of the SRO’s to keep the school safe, according too the department’s website.
“The Williamsburg Police Department believes that a safe learning environment is paramount to the educational process,” according to the website. “Our students cannot truly learn if they do not feel safe.”
But not everyone thinks school resource officers are necessary.
Jacqueline Williams, president of The Village Initiative, a nonprofit promoting unity in schools, said the presence of school resource officers disproportionately impacts students of color.
“Research shows that resource officers can bring unintended consequences, particularly for students of color,” she wrote in an email. “Rather than the schools handling disciplinary or behavioral issues through counselors, for example, these issues can be passed onto school resource officers resulting in suspensions, expulsions and arrests that lead to the School to Prison Pipeline.”
“Schools need more resources for counselors, restorative justice training and smaller class room sizes not school resource officers,” she added.
On June 3, the Virginia Education Association, a union of teachers from across the state, wants all education institutions to work on getting rid of racism and bigotry.
“The VEA is united in its belief that our communities can only realize racial justice through educational justice,”according to a statement from Jim Livingston, president of the VEA. “We are committed to the necessary actions to ensure all marginalized students and their families are treated with dignity and respect, and that their lives are not only enriched by our educational system but secured by a system of justice that provides for their equal protection. Anything less is a betrayal of the American Dream.”
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