What's an SRO?

“If a school resource officer (SRO) is not serving as a good role model, then they are of very little use.” That’s what Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), says about the importance of role modeling by SROs.

SROs, police officers and sheriff’s deputies deployed in schools to provide law enforcement, education and general problem-solving, number about 17,000 and are estimated to be in almost half of the nation’s public schools, according to a 2010 report for the U.S. Department of Justice. Although SRO duties vary around the country, being a positive example for youngsters is essentially at the core of an SRO’s role.

Kevin Quinn, a Chandler, Ariz. police officer and NASRO’s first vice president, puts it this way: “Most citizens’ first interaction with law enforcement is due to something negative… therefore, the value of our youth seeing police in a positive light at such an early age is beneficial.”

NASRO, an Alabama-based organization that offers training programs, advocates various ways for a police officer to be a positive role model. These range from “respect for students and peers” to “sincere concern for the school and community” to being active participants in school functions to developing relationships with parents through PTA meetings, conferences, booster clubs and back-to-school nights. Positive role models also exhibit professionalism, are accessible to students and “assist them individually,” “take concerns seriously,” “keep promises and appointments.”

More broadly speaking, NASRO believes that “being a positive role model is an ongoing process. Students learn from every interaction the SRO has with them. Therefore, it is essential…to always be conscious of their appearance, actions and judgment.”

By extension, law enforcement officers are not the only role models involved in effective SRO programs. In fact, Quinn defines SRO programs as, “a collaborative effort by certified law enforcement officers, educators, students, parents and the community to offer law-related educational programs in the schools in an effort to reduce crime, drug abuse, violence and provide a safe school environment.”

Canady says that NASRO emphasizes role modeling in its training programs, and “we are also working to get SROs more engaged as mentors, which also helps them to become stronger role models for students.”

The credo, in part, of the particularly active SRO program in Rutherford County, Tenn. — where an officer is assigned to each of the district’s 45 schools — is that, “effective SROs are always role models when conducting their job, [with] role modeling displayed in language, behaviors, conduct and motives, according to the program’s website. In building relationships, role modeling is done with respect and befriending,” and not only through law enforcement in schools, but also through advising and teaching, with officers giving presentations on topics such as drug abuse, citizenship and the role of police in society.

“We are role models due to our 
being assigned to a campus full time, which allows us to be a part of the 
students’ lives,” says Sgt. Bill West, 
an SRO with Rutherford County and an NASRO regional director. Officers do 
so through what West’s colleague, Lt. Brad Harrison, calls “a curriculum tailored to each grade level from K to 8th grade,” as well as building relationships with parents, coaching sports, shepherding drama clubs, boating safety courses, etc. There is also a boot camp in operation in the county to catch kids that are on the bubble of a social or criminal downfall.

Effective role modeling fosters trust. Harrison and Canady say that trust leads to communication, which Harrison points out can “expedite the investigative process when there are issues on or off campus.” The intention there — enhanced safety and security in district schools.

There are other views about SROs, of course.

Barbara Raymond, program director for The California Endowment, 
penned “Assigning Police Officers to Schools,” the aforementioned 2010 report on SROs. She says that while data evaluating the overall effectiveness of SROs are sketchy, police officers can be positive role models in schools, although not by any means the only option in terms of role modeling.

West agrees, “that some of the duties we perform and the work we do with students and their families is not always something that can be analyzed. The support we give students on the front end may keep things from happening, and as we mentor students, the decisions that students make as they grow would not be able to be measured.”

When asked about the statistical point, Harrison points out that in the past decade, his county’s school population has increased 26 percent. During that period, county officials added 17 SROs to the force, and arrests have increased by just 16 percent. There could be many variables at work; “although we would like to see the number of arrests lower, I think this is a measure of success.”

In Raymond’s view, “no doubt there are many cases where SROs serve as positive role models to children in schools. However, the average cost of a full-time police officer with salary and benefits is $100,000/year. Given the budget constraints faced by public agencies these days, this is a very expensive way to get positive role models into children’s lives.”

Raymond believes that there are 
effective and less expensive options, 
including AmeriCorps, the federal program for community service. AmeriCorps, as an umbrella organization for a number of positive role model teaching and peer-to-peer mentoring programs, is providing many “additional caring adults” who help kids with homework, tutoring and provide after-school help in K-12 districts, says AmeriCorps spokesman Sandy Scott.

Raymond adds, “If I were a police administrator, I would think carefully about full-time deployment of a trained police officer into a school setting if the primary purpose were to serve as a positive role model. I feel the same would be true for a school district official or other funder. Of course, off-duty police officers could easily volunteer as mentors, tutors and other positive adult influences in school settings.”

Harrison adds a counterpoint: “I equate SROs to another law enforcement entity. You cannot measure how much criminal activity a patrolman prevents by being visible in a neighborhood. The same can be said of an SRO in school. It is difficult to measure the amount of prevention in this venue.”

“The number one goal of school-based policing should be to bridge the gap between students and officers,” adds NASRO’s Canady, “serving as a good role model helps to bridge that gap more completely.”
As Quinn sees it, “the SRO is the positive image of police for our young people. The value of our youth seeing police in a positive light at such an early age is beneficial for the future, and hopefully we are teaching our kids and young adults to have a greater respect for law enforcement.” 

Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.