In light of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, families and local communities nationwide raised questions about the safety and security of our children. Of course, the vast majority of schools are secure – and our children are safe at school. However, the time is ripe to reassess ways to improve the overall school climate and look beyond simply having more police officers in schools. President Obama’s Plan to Reduce Gun Violence includes tools to create a safer environment at schools across the country and includes a call to put as many as 1,000 new school resource officers and counselors on the job.
School resource officers, or SROs, are members of the law enforcement community who teach, counsel, and protect the school community. When SROs are integrated into a school system, the benefits go beyond reduced violence in schools. The officers often build relationships with students while serving as a resource to students, teachers, and administrators to help solve problems.
For students with a mental illness, use of drugs or alcohol can be a key risk factor for committing acts of violence. Recent research shows that those with a severe mental illness and a substance use disorder have a greatly increased relative risk for violence (more than 11 times) compared to those with neither diagnosis. Since SROs can help infuse substance abuse and violence-prevention messaging in schools and throughout school systems, they can play an important role in school safety plans.
In March, I met with school resource officers in Chantilly, Virginia, to discuss school safety and substance abuse. It was clear from this discussion that we need to look beyond the law enforcement function of SROs and recognize their value in cultivating a safe, supportive environment for our young people.
School resource officers are not armed guards standing sentry at school entrances. These men and women receive training in counseling and other skills that help them be effective in a school setting. Part of a school resource officer’s job is building relationships with students and faculty, and the job often doesn’t end at the close of the school day. They can be present at extracurricular activities and in school hallways, building trust with the students. School resource officers can get involved if they believe a young person may pose a danger to the school community. They can even visit students at home and speak with parents and family.
Keeping our young people safe and healthy is a prime motivator for all of us. And properly trained school resource officers can play an important role in creating a school community where young people thrive and are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
For more information on SROs, please visit the National Association of School Resource Officers at www.nasro.org.