BURLINGTON (AP) — There may not be enough SROs to go around, but departments are getting creative to get officers in schools.
School resource officers are nothing new, but with mounting concerns over school shootings, schools increasingly are working with police and sheriff’s departments to bolster student safety.
The Hawk Eye reports that Burlington patrol officers have been required to make appearances in Burlington's public and private schools on a daily basis for the past six or seven years, but it wasn't until this year the department began assigning officers to specific schools.
“This year we’ve done something a little bit different,” said Burlington Police Maj. Darren Grimshaw. “We’ve actually assigned the officers to specific schools at the grade-school level.”
Grimshaw said the new program arose from discussions between the police department and Burlington School District Superintendent Pat Coen following an outpouring by students and parents last spring, when students marched from Burlington High School to the district administration building to voice concerns over school security, emergency preparedness and mental health access.
“We’re always looking at ways we can enhance our relationships with students, but at the same time, there was a lot of effort last (school) year by students and a lot of parents wanting to enhance access to mental health services, wanting to kind of strengthen or harden a little bit the abilities for people to access schools. They wanted more eyes and ears. They wanted more training,” Grimshaw said. “So as (the police department and school administrators) sat collectively and discussed how we might incorporate some of that that wouldn’t be outside of what our budget constraints are, one of the ideas we came up with was assigning officers to each school.”
Officers visit their assigned schools periodically throughout their shifts, as their workload allows. They spend anywhere from between 10 to 30 minutes there, walking the hallways and talking with students and staff. There are no set times for these visits.
The idea is to give school administrators a direct liaison officer with whom they can discuss potential threats and ongoing problems in school, build stronger relationships between officers and students and staff, and to give officers a stronger sense of investment in and ownership of those schools.
The assignments are in addition to the two school resource officers assigned to the Burlington School District. Officer Jesse Hill spends weekdays at BHS, and officer Laura Larger splits her time between Aldo Leopold and Edward Stone middle schools. The district’s five elementary schools had been left more vulnerable. Notre Dame Catholic and Great River Christian schools are without SROs.
The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends having one SRO for every school building or one SRO per every 1,000 students, depending on the size of the school building, but staffing and budget constraints seldom allow for that.
“To have the money to have an officer at each one of the schools would be great,” Grimshaw said.
The district covers about 75 percent of the SROs salary and wages during the school year, while the city covers the other 25 percent. That’s about $125,000 from the district’s dropout prevention funds. During the summer months, the city pays the full salary and benefit amounts.
“During school, it’s a little costly, obviously, for both the school and the city to be able to outfit SROs at every school, but we’re always keeping an eye out for opportunities with grants, anything that might afford us the opportunity,” Grimshaw said.
While the Burlington School District enjoys the increase in police presence, districts in more rural areas without their own police departments, such as the Central Lee School District, work with the county sheriff’s department to train their staff, develop safety plans and provide SROs.
The Central Lee School District entered into an agreement in August with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department to have a full-time SRO on campus. Superintendent Andy Crozier pointed out to the Lee County Board of Supervisors that the schools are, at the least, eight minutes away from the sheriff’s office, and that’s factoring in excessive speeding. Like many schools throughout southeast Iowa and the rest of the U.S., concerns have arisen in the district about school safety since the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February.
The district’s decision to get an SRO followed the failure of a $9.8 million bond issue that would have added increased security measures to the school buildings.
Under the agreement, Central Lee will pay the county $40,000 this year; $45,000 July 1, 2019; and $50,000 July 1, 2020.
Other districts, such as Mediapolis and Danville, share an SRO from the Des Moines County Sheriff’s Department, but arrangements are in place to provide each district with a full-time SRO next year.
The two districts have held a longstanding agreement with the sheriff’s department, which began in 2001, that allows each to have a part-time SRO at an annual cost of $15,742 each.
Mediapolis School District Superintendent Greg Ray said the district has discussed having a full-time SRO, but “at the present time, until more officers can be hired and trained, the sheriff’s department does not have the human resources to make a full-time SRO work.”
Sheriff Mike Johnstone said the department will hire another deputy and appoint one of its current deputies to the SRO position next year. Each district will pay $67,000 per year to the county.
“It’s driven by the school shootings that are happening all over the country all the time. The schools just want to make sure their kids are protected,” Johnstone said. “It’s an additional cost. However, it’s one of those things where how important is the safety of your kids.”
Like SROs in other districts, the SRO serving Mediapolis and Danville assists with running and evaluating safety drills and brings knowledge and experience to the schools when faced with situations involving weapons and controlled substances. The SRO also provides the DARE program to fifth-graders. Just as importantly, the SRO builds relationships and communication with students and staff, which helps them to better and more quickly identify warning signs early on.
“The key to it is making sure the kids have the ability to approach somebody that they know and trust,” Johnstone said.
Sheriff’s deputies and the tactical response team also familiarize themselves with the school buildings and their emergency plans so they can respond quickly and accurately should something happen.
“The Des Moines County Sheriff’s department has been a tremendous partner and asset to the Mediapolis School District providing training, support, and resources that support the safety and security of our students and staff,” Ray said.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT OFFICER FOR THE JOB
In the event there is an active shooter, SROs are expected to get to the shooter as quickly as possible to minimize the loss of life. They also are tasked with being mentors, forming relationships with students, being alert for changes in behavior and the physical environment that might signal a potential threat and myriad other responsibilities, which is why it’s so important to choose the right person for the job.
“It’s high-intensity. You have to be on your toes and you have to have good communication skills. You have to be ready for anything. Not everyone could do it,” Johnstone said, though he feels several of his deputies are well equipped for the job.
“Obviously all of these officers understand that school safety is important,” Grimshaw said. “That’s why they’re there, to make sure that the schools are safe and to be an initial responder, if anything does happen. But they also understand the day-in, day-out huge part of what their role is is to be mentors and develop relationships with students and staff in schools.”
To qualify for the position in Burlington, officers must be certified through the Law Enforcement Academy, have successfully completed annual updated trainings and have two or more years of police experience. Interested officers then interview for the position with department lieutenants and school administrators. Things like community engagement, how the officer interviews, reasons for wanting to be an SRO, qualities they bring to the table, past experiences and how they interact with youth are taken into consideration.
SROs spend four years in the schools before returning to the department. Larger is in her third year as the middle school SRO. When Sgt. John Stirn was promoted to patrol sergeant at the end of his four-year SRO rotation, the last two of which he spent at BHS, three or for officers interviewed for the available slot.
Among those candidates, Hill stood out the most.
“Essentially, it’s his engagement with youth, his involvement with a lot kids, how he responded to what he felt an SROs’ responsibilities were,” Grimshaw said, pointing to Hill’s past experience as a sports coach in Keokuk. “He talked a lot to the needs of students that may need additional assistance, he talked a lot about relations in the community, so he just brought a lot to the table we felt would be a good fit.”
Grimshaw said Hill’s accidental fatal shooting of Autumn Steele in 2016 was not of concern when selecting him for the position. Coen also said it was not a concern and the district checked to make sure no students were related to Steele in making the decision.
Grimshaw said Larger had a good grasp on youth engagement and why she felt officers being in the schools plays a vital role in building relations and communications with students and staff.
“We believe that school resource officers play a huge role, not only just for school safety and security, but just the relationship building, the mentoring, the ability for us to develop relations with students a lot of times is the paramount with our SROs,” said Grimshaw, who has done much with the district’s before- and after-school PIECES program. “They have contact with kids every day, and that bleeds over: in the summer months, as students get older. A lot of times, the only interaction that a lot of these students have with law enforcement is with the SRO, so the development of those relationships, the development of trust, the ability for the students to understand that they can come to us when they need us is vitally important.”
Once selected for the position, SROs must complete a 40-hour training, put on by the School Resource Officer Association and paid for by the police department. SROs may attend additional trainings and conferences at the request of the school district, though those typically are paid for by the district. They also must attend the Iowa School Resource Officer conference each summer for updates on school security and hardening schools, legalities of interviewing students, engaging parents and when student property can and cannot be searched.
“Throughout that, we make sure that they attend regular updates and trainings that deal with potential problem students, determining how to best interact with school staff, whether it be counselors, administrators, teachers, and then really getting a good grasp and understanding of what their role is as an SRO,” Grimshaw said.
Officers also must attend and have had training in school shooting situations, crisis response and crisis intervention. All BPD officers are certified ALICE instructors.
ADDRESSING MENTAL HEALTH
In addition to ALICE training the BPD helps to provide schools with each year, the department will provide mental health and crisis intervention technique training in October involving law enforcement, area mental health providers and school staff wherein they will learn how to recognize potential crisis issues in schools. The intent is to equip them to sooner recognize students in need of mental health services with which the schools can connect them.
“Our first 40-hour mental health training and crisis intervention techniques is going to happen in southeast Iowa,” Grimshaw said. “And we’re going to make sure that obviously our school resource officers, any of our officers that have immediate contact, maybe on the front line with specific units, would attend that training.”
The department has been working on a subcommittee with regional mental health coalition Southeast Iowa Regional Link for the past year and a half to develop the crisis intervention training.
As for the future of the BPD’s involvement with making schools safe, Grimshaw is optimistic.
“There’s been a lot of things happening in our schools across the country that have brought the attention and the necessary conversation to the forefront,” he said. “But I’m pretty encouraged, over the last several years, by the amount of interaction the police department and the school districts have been having and the cooperative kind of collaboration that we’ve had with what’s best for the school district, what’s best for the schools and ultimately what’s best for the students who are attending our schools, and how do we work together to make sure that we’re providing the services efficiently and effectively as we can, and not just from a security standpoint, but also from a mentoring and a teaching standpoint.”