Policing in Public Schools: Beyond the Active Shooter 

By Gary D. Rudick 
Stock image of high school students waiting in a hallway between classes. © Thinkstock.com

Violence that occurs in public schools is not new. Nothing chills the heart and soul of parents and other members of the public as much as an unprovoked, violent attack against school children. Unfortunately, the number of these crimes has grown in schools across the nation because public education mirrors society as a whole. The students of today differ from those of a half century ago, and schools paired with violent neighborhoods and unsafe communities present even greater danger.

To keep schools safe, educators have instituted more aggressive security measures and demanded a greater presence of municipal and county law enforcement on campuses. As a result, state and local governments have passed legislation to create new campus law enforcement agencies. As the nation’s fear of violence in public schools increases, the pressure placed on police agencies to protect the educational environment increases as well.

Indeed, an armed intruder presents the gravest threat to the school population, and campus police officers train rigorously for active-shooter scenarios. Unfortunately, safety threats are not confined to violent intruders on campus. In fact, the active-shooter threat occurs even more rarely when compared with the consistent risks to students, faculty, and staff. Crimes, like physical assault, possession of weapons or drugs, and theft, occur much more frequently than armed intrusions, yet the public and most of law enforcement remain largely unaware of these incidents. Additionally, officers may have to deal with difficult situations that involve students with special needs, youngsters living in poverty, irate parents, disgruntled faculty, and principals dealing with the pressure to meet certain levels of achievement, at times at the expense of their school’s safety. 

The situations described above pertain exclusively to educational environments, and most law enforcement officers are not trained to handle them. Therefore, campus police officers must receive targeted training to learn how to respond to all of these scenarios. A training curriculum confined to the armed intruder threat will prove insufficient for a campus police department. To increase law enforcement’s effectiveness in schools, agencies must prepare officers for all aspects of public school policing.

Chief Rudick serves with the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Public Schools Campus Police.
Chief Rudick serves with the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Public Schools Campus Police.

Law enforcement administrators should ask themselves, What sort of instruction in addition to active shooter training will benefit police personnel in public schools? Are certain policing techniques truly unique to an educational setting? Will street officers’ training prepare them to serve in an educational setting and protect the school in different scenarios? As a chief of police for a public school police agency, the author offers suggestions based on his own experiences to tailor training for law enforcement within an educational setting.

Students with Special Needs
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

A 17-year-old male student who has the mental capacity of a 6 year old rapes another mentally challenged male student who is deaf and mute. The school administrators attempt to interview the suspect and witnesses to determine if a crime has been committed. Because of the serious handicaps of the students involved, administrators consider the situation an internal matter and do not contact law enforcement to conduct a criminal investigation. The suspect’s parents remove him from the school and place him in a mental institution. By the time administrators call the police a day later, forensic evidence has been compromised, and potential witnesses are considered unreliable. The investigation has been weakened so badly that the officers cannot file criminal charges.

Many school administrators hesitate to report crimes committed by students with disabilities. They assume that an incident involving a student in a special education program requires a different course of action than one involving the average student. Indubitably, crimes that manifest from a diagnosed disability present significant complications for investigators. To learn more about these situations, police officers who work within schools should familiarize themselves with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The federal law states that, “Educators are not exempt from reporting criminal conduct by a child with a disability to the appropriate authorities. Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to prohibit an agency from reporting a crime committed by a child with a disability to appropriate authorities or to prevent state law enforcement and judicial authorities from exercising their responsibilities with regard to the application of federal and state law to crimes committed by a child with a disability.”1

Many school and law enforcement officials misinterpret the regulations presented in IDEA. In some cases, school officials have prevented police officers from handcuffing special education students under arrest. In other instances, school employees have abandoned their own responsibilities to restrain students, or police officers have used an inappropriate type or level of force. How will officers know how to act in these situations when even education professionals do not always know the proper protocol? Instructing officers about how IDEA applies to their work will help them respond to these sensitive situations safely, appropriately, and legally.

Language of Special Education

A student becomes unruly in class to the point that the teacher fears the boy will harm someone. The teacher physically forces the child to sit down, and a struggle ensues. The student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) states clearly that a teacher can touch the child using only a certain technique that requires specific training. When the child’s mother learns of the incident, she demands a formal police report, claiming the teacher’s physical contact violated the IEP. She wants to file criminal assault and battery charges against the teacher.

Law enforcement administrators should ask their officers certain questions to ensure they understand the regulations they must follow. These questions should include, Do you know what an IEP is? Can you explain why officers need training regarding special restraint techniques? Can school officers view confidential documents about special education students? Do federal requirements for reporting mechanical restraints include handcuffs? These topics all relate to campus law enforcement, yet most campus police agencies do not include them in training.

Today, federal laws have begun to require that every school employee, including security personnel and campus police, receive training to learn how to appropriately restrain special education students when necessary. If personnel fail to complete or document this specialized training, it can result in serious civil penalties for schools and individual employees. Officers working in schools should be well versed in the nuances and regulations of IDEA as courts may apply criminal statutes differently to cases involving special education students.

“As the nation’s fear of violence in public schools increases, the pressure placed on police agencies to protect the educational environment increases as well.”

Additionally, officers benefit from learning about the students with special needs in their school so that they know how to interact and communicate with each of them. An IEP can help officers gather this critical information. This document details the preferred methods of instruction and discipline for a special needs child. This can be as simple as “John needs additional time to complete exams” or as serious as “Susan requires a personal aid throughout the day.” This information helps officers and faculty avoid using unnecessary force against these students and encourages alternative methods to calm them during violent episodes.

Traditional tactics of forceful restraint, including handcuffing techniques and physical restraints, may not prove effective when dealing with special needs students. School police officers should receive training to learn about topics, such as legal access to student records, release-of-information laws, and the acceptable methods of physically handling students.

Effects of Generational Poverty

A middle school student disrupts a class, curses at his teacher, and, later, starts a fight with another student. When he arrives at police headquarters, he is angry and confrontational. After a period of time, he calms down and confesses that last night, his older brother was shot while standing in the front door of their home. The student jumped out of his bedroom window and ran away from the house to escape the gunfire, but he had no place to go for protection. He admits that this event caused him to feel angry all day at school. He then asks for something to eat as he has not eaten anything since lunch the previous day.

As human beings, officers bring their own personal experiences and values to the job and, thus, may have preconceived notions concerning academic performance and behavior in the educational environment. However, students raised in different socioeconomic circumstances, especially in generational poverty, might maintain a different perspective. Common views on education, money, and, even, humor may differ between the economic classes and cause misunderstandings.

Becoming more cognizant of how a student’s socioeconomic background impacts their behavior may help officers increase understanding, improve communication, and reduce conflict. As one excellent resource, school police officers can reference the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty for insights on this topic. Police officers could benefit from applying the principles of this book to their own relationships with people in poverty, particularly students.2

Principal’s Perspective

“Officers…in schools should be well versed in the nuances and regulations of IDEA as courts may apply criminal statutes differently to cases involving special education students.”

A school police officer once reported, “I don’t understand. The kids are walking the halls, won’t go to class, and won’t obey any instructions. They let the kids get away with all sorts of bad behavior and then wonder why things get out of hand and fights start. What is wrong with this principal that he won’t make an example of these kids? If they are not here to learn, kick them all out of school!”

Police officers do not experience the same pressures placed on school administrators who need to achieve adequate annual yearly progress or meet the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind. The law requires that schools lead students to earn certain scores in math, reading, science, social studies, and attendance each year. Failing to reach these standards can cost a school its funding and principals or superintendents their jobs. Principals must achieve success in these critical areas while dealing with other stressors, such as special education, student testing, athletic excellence, and union contract negotiations.3

Stock image of students seated in class listening to their instructor. © Thinkstock.com

The above scenario described an officer’s actual experience in a school that failed to improve test scores enough to satisfy federal and state requirements, largely because too few students attended the tests. As a result, school administrators ignored unacceptable behavior just to keep enough students in the building. If the school suspended students for behavior violations, too few would be able to take the exams, and the school would not achieve the necessary improvements. While the officer felt frustrated at how this policy negatively impacted the school’s safety, it, nonetheless, helped the school reach its mandated progress and come off of the “needs improvement” list.

Officers could benefit from training sessions that focus on the administrative expectations placed on principals. Such knowledge would reduce misunderstandings between campus police and education officials. Also, this training may facilitate ideas for handling students in ways that satisfy both the officer’s desire to keep the school safe and the principal’s need to achieve certain education goals.

Teacher Factor

A police officer receives a call to arrest a student for assault and battery. The involved teacher physically had blocked the door to prevent the student from leaving the classroom, but the boy shoved past her. The officer determines the student had no criminal intent to harm and only exited the room out of frustration and to prevent conflicts with other students from escalating. With no intent, the officer determines the boy committed no crime and makes no arrest. The teacher files a formal complaint that alleges the officer refused to perform his duty. She tells others that the police do not care about the safety of the faculty.

To prevent such misunderstandings, training sessions should create shared opportunities for officers and educators to learn about certain topics together. This facilitates mutual understanding of each profession’s respective duties within the school environment.

In 2009 and 2010, the Oklahoma Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training sponsored events in Tulsa and Oklahoma City that embraced this unique training philosophy. The topics were presented in 1-hour blocks during which educators (superintendents, principals, counselors, and teachers) and police officers (from municipal, county, state, and campus police departments at both the college and secondary levels) came together for professional instruction on important issues. Topics included criminal laws specific to schools and juvenile violators, media relations, creation of safe school environments, special education students, and public release of information involving students. The attendees could ask questions and receive feedback from both law enforcement and education perspectives. Both groups came away with a better understanding of each other’s duties, responsibilities, misconceptions, and concerns.


Policing in an educational setting truly is a unique responsibility. It presents special challenges because the school environment differs so greatly from the jurisdictions of most other law enforcement agencies. To understand how to police this unique environment, law enforcement personnel need to receive training to sensitize them to the needs of the students, faculty, and staff.

Former First Lady Laura Bush said, “Children can’t learn if they’re worried about their safety.”4 Obviously, school police officers must be prepared to protect their school from violent crimes and armed intruders. But, their training must expand beyond the active-shooter scenario. If campus police departments intend to make schools a safer and more secure environment for learning, they must prepare their officers. This will demonstrate law enforcement’s commitment to serve the most vulnerable of citizens—children.


1 U.S. Department of Education, “Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act,” http://www2.ed.gov/Policy/speced/guid.html (accessed January 9, 2011).

2 Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty (Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 1998).

3 U.S. Department of Education, “No Child Left Behind,” http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml (accessed January 9, 2011).

4 Gannett News Service Multimedia, “Safe at School? A National Forum for Ideas and Discussion,” http://azcentral.gns.gannettonline.com (accessed January 21, 2011).

“To understand how to police this unique environment, law enforcement personnel need to receive training to sensitize them to the needs of the students, faculty, and staff.”