Who Is Your Thin Blue Line?

Since the first law enforcement officers were assigned to U.S. K-12 schools in Flint, MI, in 1957, there have been dramatic changes in how security and law enforcement personnel are utilized in public, charter, and independent schools. Educators are typically not experts in security and law enforcement and sometimes question which type of approach is best for providing security and/or law enforcement staffing for schools and special events. There are numerous approaches, ranging from unarmed contract security personnel to armed school district police or local law enforcement officers.

In at least one state (New York), state troopers regularly provide security for many schools. Some school districts utilize a blend of armed and sworn personnel, and unarmed or armed security personnel. Perhaps it will be helpful to explore some of the more popular approaches to protective services for schools.

In-House Security Personnel
This was the traditional approach prior to 1957, and has still proven to be popular in some schools and districts. In regions where schools are not authorized to create their own police agencies, and local police agencies are either not well regarded or salary levels make their use is cost prohibitive, armed or unarmed security personnel have been used. Some schools and districts prefer to hire, equip, and train their own personnel, often hiring experienced civilian or military law enforcement officers to create increased control and continuity of services.
Contracted Security Personnel
Other schools and districts opt for security officers over law enforcement officers and choose to use contracted services because they do not wish to get into the business of running their own security department. Contract companies typically recruit, train, equip, and assign personnel and handle all administrative aspects of staffing.

Contracted Sworn Law Enforcement Officers
In many communities, local or state law enforcement officers, working with titles including school liaison officer, community officer, or school resource officer, provide security and law enforcement services. This is one of the most predominant approaches today in the United States.

In-House Law Enforcement Personnel
Many school districts have found it to be more cost-effective and efficient to create their own school district police department. This approach has been most heavily used in Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, and Nevada, though a number of successful school police departments are operating in other states as well. In some areas, school district police officers are more highly paid, equipped, and trained than local and state police, though this is not always the case.

Blended Approaches
One approach that has proven to be successful, particularly in larger districts, involves a blended approach using both sworn law enforcement personnel and civilian security personnel. This strategy can help reduce the cost of staffing and is particularly beneficial in regions where local police salaries are higher than average. When a blended approach is used, the duties of each type of officer should be clearly described to improve the efficiency of the program.

Specific Cautions
In working to improve or develop prevention programs, there are some pitfalls that can arise.

Here are a few concerns that arise most often.

Background Checks
Though not understood by many educators, the proper background investigation of security and law enforcement personnel is crucial. One large school district with internal security personnel was embarrassed when it was revealed in the national news that the majority of its officers were convicted felons. In another case, a mid-sized school district found that some of the officers provided by a security firm likewise had felony arrests and convictions. Though they generally fare better due to tighter state requirements, some law enforcement agencies have also assigned personnel to schools with major skeletons in their closet.

Caliber of Personnel
Regardless of the approach used, the caliber of personnel assigned is crucial to success. As with any other category of school employee, I have met outstanding officers from all four of the types of approaches listed, as well as examples of each unfit for service in a K-12 school.

Salary of Personnel
A number of school security and law enforcement programs suffer from chronically high turnover due to severe disparity in salary and benefits. Though it may look less expensive on paper, this situation is almost certain to result in major expenditures due to poor performance and increased exposure to civil liability.

Contrary to popular belief, officers working in the K-12 setting should receive more advanced training than their counterparts in other sectors.

Political Issues
Politics can kill the effectiveness of any of the four approaches if left unchecked. Proper public oversight and discussion can help reduce the effects of politics. Some districts and independent schools retain outside consultants to evaluate their approach for this reason.

A properly operated school security and/or law enforcement program can dramatically improve safety, order, discipline, and emergency preparedness for K-12 schools. The right program can reduce employee turnover, exposure to civil liability, and cause damage to the reputation of school organizations. An often overlooked but incredibly important aspect of a good protection program is the significant improvement of school climate that can be achieved. Since fear is one of the most powerful barriers to learning, there is little that many K-12 schools can do to improve test scores than to improve safety and security.

Michael Dorn served as a school district police chief for a decade and wrote the first book published on school/law enforcement partnerships, and has assisted hundreds of public, charter, and independent schools in the U.S., Canada, Israel, and Vietnam create and improve school security and law enforcement programs. A free copy of his e- book, Let None Learn In Fear, can be downloaded at www.safehavensinternational.org.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.