Survey: School-based Officers Prevent School Violence, Increase Safety
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
The presence of school-based officers (SROs) has sometimes met with skepticism from both students and members of the community. However, a new survey of the men and women charged with keeping those schools safe not only says that their presence prevents school violence, but sheds light on the officers' day-to-day activities and relationships with those around them.
"I think if anything, the report validates the fact that [SROs] are at least a very important part of the overall school safety picture," says Curtis Lavarello, Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). "Every educational study conducted that I've seen has concluded that unless kids feel safe, they can't learn to their highest capacity."
The survey polled 689 SROs gathered at the annual NASRO conference in the spring of this year. While this group makes up slightly less than 10% of NASRO's over 7,000 members, the survey is designed to give the first concrete data on SRO demographics, program design and operations and program impact and perceptions nationwide.
The report's author and President of National Safety and Security Services, Kenneth Trump, says that while there is no one strategy to reduce or eliminate school violence, school-based officers are one of the best examples of community policing.
"SROs are a first line of defense in preventing school violence so that other education, prevention, intervention, and support programs can be most effectively delivered in a secure environment," says Trump. "School violence often reflects community violence. So what better link is there between preventing crime in the schools and preventing crime in the community than police officers trained and skilled in youth and school violence prevention?"
Of those surveyed, 99% reported that their SRO program has improved school safety and prevented crime and violence. Furthermore, 91% of respondents said that at least half of their job duties consisted of preventative tasks and only 7% said that the majority of their work is on enforcement and investigations.
"This is quite a shift from normal police work where the work being done is reactive - an SRO's work is largely preventative," adds Lavarello, a police officer for 20 years, 15 of which was spent in schools.
The Officer's Impact on Reporting School Crime
One telling statistic from the survey involves the number of crimes committed at schools and those being reported to police. According to those SROs in the survey, 84% feel that, in general, crimes on school campuses are underreported to police. However, 86% reported that the presence of an SRO does improve the accuracy of school crime reporting.
"Since educators are not trained to distinguish crime from disruptive behaviors, it makes sense that a law enforcement professionals would be better able to identify and report crimes," says Trump. "Most school safety specialists have known for years that the national school crime statistics are quite frankly a joke in that they grossly understate the extent of school crime."
Trump adds that while crime is not as rampant in schools as public perception sometimes suggests, it is certainly greater than what some federal reports and academicians indicate through "limited data. "
"Before we can successfully prevent and intervene with school violence, we first have to accurately define the problem," he says.
For Lavarello, increased reporting of school crime is directly tied into the relationship between SROs and those they encounter everyday. At his first assignment at a school, he felt that the kids did not like him, but after a while he realized the opposite.
"Shortly after [my first school assignment], I realized how clouded my vision was," he says. "When I did road patrol as a cop, I dealt with negative [youth], but at the school, they would come up and ask me how my day was, we'd talk about football and other things. We build a good baseline of communication and that leads to comfort in reporting crime."
According to the survey, on a scale from one to five, with five being excellent and one being poor, SROs reported having strong positive relations with both students (average 4.39) and school administrators (4.40). Furthermore, they had strong relationships with other school support staff (4.36) and teachers (4.27).
"School-based police officers surveyed are clearly experienced, veteran officers who voluntarily sought out the position," says Trump. " The vast majority of officers exceeded departmental education requirements. This combined experience and education tells me that our SROs are knowledgeable and skilled, and who are there working with kids because they want to be there --- not because they were forced to be there."
Dealing with Misunderstandings
While a majority of SROs feel that those within the school environment completely understand their role, others do not. Fifty-four percent of respondents stated that school faculty/staff fully understand their role, as do 57% of students.
Those in the community, especially individuals who influence school safety, do not have as clear an understanding, according to respondents. Sixty-four percent of SROs given the survey state that parents don't understand what they do at the school, while 57% said other police officers have a similar misunderstanding. Furthermore, 71% reported that the media are also in the dark, as are elected officials (70% of respondents). As for school violence researchers and academicians, 47% reported that they do not understand fully the role and function of an SRO, while another 47% said that they did.
"I am particularly concerned that officers so strongly feel that the individuals who shape public awareness and public policy --- elected officials, the media, and school violence researchers--- do not fully understand the role of the SRO," said Trump. "These individuals shape public opinion, set public policy, and make funding decisions about school safety programs, yet the data suggests they do not fully understand what SROs do and how this prevents school violence. A lack of understanding by individuals in these groups of what school-based policing is about could mean that SRO programs might not get the full support and resources to make schools safer. "
Lavarello adds that part of an SROs job is in fact to serve as an extension of his or her school and meet with these very individuals. Often during his duty in schools, he would call upon the media to attend and event or meeting to enhance their understanding and get them involved as an active participant in attention to school safety.
Another topic which has received a lot of attention in the media and by parents is the question of whether or not SROs should carry firearms. Over 97% of the surveyed officers reported that they do carry a firearm on the job. Since one of the controversies surrounding this topic is a student getting access to that firearm, officers were asked how often someone on campus tried to disarm them. Twenty-three (5%) of the 689 officers reported they had one such incident and all reported that the attempt was unsuccessful.
Additionally, 98% of respondents reported that they do not believe that an armed SRO puts students at greater risk of injury or harm. However, 91% did feel that an unarmed SRO does put students at greater risk of injury or harm. Only 7% stated disagreed, saying that an unarmed officer would not put students at a greater risk.
"We periodically see some ludicrous debates about having police in schools, but taking away their guns," says Trump. "I find it quite ironic that we never see those people who are against school-based police being armed out protesting having armed officers to protect their money in banks or to protect them while they are shopping at affluent suburban shopping malls, yet for some reason they feel that there is something wrong with having an armed officer protect our children and educators. It's absurd!"
To read the complete 2001 NASRO School Resource Officer Survey, go to: http://www.schoolsecurity.org/resources/2001NASROsurvey.pdf
Curtis Lavarello, Executive Director, NASRO, (561) 350-8860, www.nasro.org
Kenneth Trump, President, National School Safety and Security Services, (216) 251-3067, www.schoolsecurity.org
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