School Resource Officers and Violence Prevention: Best Practices (Part Two)
By Katherine W. Schweit, J.D., and Ashley M. Mancik, M.A.
All photos courtesy of the National Association of School Resources Officers (NASRO).
“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe.”
—former president Barack H. Obama II1
Students’ success can be impacted by violence and trauma occurring around them.2 Although trends have shown a steady decrease in such incidents in schools, the latest research finds that 65 percent of schools still report incidents of serious violent crimes, including weapons use, threats, robberies, and sexual assaults.3
As part of former president Obama’s 2013 initiative to stop gun violence and focus on keeping children safe, he prioritized making schools more secure and implemented an executive order allowing for additional resources and incentives for education officials to hire more school resource officers (SROs).4 Law enforcement agencies play a vital role in school safety.
However, SROs need adequate training and support from the school, district, and police department. Navigating how to effectively work within this environment—with its own set of challenges and considerations—takes planning and patience.
As part of its continued commitment to support law enforcement, the FBI interviewed a group of experienced SROs and law enforcement officers (LEOs) with a combined 150 years of experience. They shared their advice on pitfalls to avoid and successful strategies to implement. These united voices are matched with the latest research.
This two-part article offers help to SROs and other LEOs working in kindergarten through 12th grade educational settings. Part one addressed considerations for establishing such a partnership, including potential challenges.5 Part two focuses on targeted violence prevention strategies. Further, the FBI offers a free guide, Violence Prevention in Schools: Enhancement Through Law Enforcement Partnerships, that highlights key points from both parts of the article.6
INSTITUTING PREVENTION STRATEGIES
Reaching the Goal
Ms. Schweit is chief of the Violence Prevention Section in the FBI’s Office of Partner Engagement in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Mancik is an FBI honors intern and a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware in Newark.
In addition to regular law enforcement duties, SROs, foremost, should strive to foster a healthy school climate. This underlying cultural environment allows students to feel safe and supported, and research has linked school climate to student likelihood of reporting threats and suspicious behavior.7
SROs can nurture such an environment by building trusting relationships with students, encouraging nonviolent means of conflict resolution, and minimizing tolerance for bullying. This includes emphasizing students’ responsibility to support a healthy school climate, secured through honest discussions on treatment of self and others.
To help attain this goal, SROs should take a holistic approach and appreciate the unique talents they bring to the effort. A healthy school environment involves everyone, including students, faculty members, administrators, parents, and community support organizations.
SROs hold a unique position that enables them to bridge the gap that can exist from inside to outside the school. They are not tied to a particular class schedule or the same group of students in an identical environment every day. As part of a school threat assessment team (TAT), SROs can play a critical role in sharing informed views about observations by themselves and others.8
Students usually know about impending targeted school attacks, and research has shown that when they trust school officials, they are more likely to report.9 Therefore, strong relationships comprise the heart of an SRO’s ability to help build a healthy school climate. Officers should establish connections—based on mutual trust and respect—with students prior to an incident. These trusting relationships not only encourage communication but also may increase law enforcement awareness of concerns and potential threats to school safety.10 Single interactions with students will not have the same effect.
Building such connections takes time. Simple tips for SROs include addressing students by name, greeting them and asking about their day, showing genuine concern, and always ensuring communications remain respectful.11
Establishing a presence can help deter crime or deescalate a violent situation. Suggestions on the most effective ways to do so include greeting students, visiting classrooms and lunchrooms, and providing supervision where the young people gather.12
If a school does not have the necessary resources to assign an SRO full time, the officer should have enough scheduled time in the school to become established as a member of the regularly available adults whom students see and interact with. These officers may experience more difficulty establishing a presence and building relationships with students, so they should make every effort to engage and talk with students while on campus.
SROs simply can provide campus safety training or participate in or attend more collective school-based activities, such as music, theater, sports, language festivals, clubs, and activities. These smaller group events help officers build connections with a broader group of students and may provide them improved opportunities to integrate as an intimate part of the environment.
- Strive to make students feel connected and supported.
- Get to know them by name.
- Greet students, ask them about their day, and express an interest in their lives.
“An engaged and informed School Resource Officer can help prevent violence in schools both formally and informally.”
Communicating with Students
When interacting with students, SROs must recognize the youths’ developmental maturity and consider potential prior trauma and cultural or linguistic differences.13 Officers should begin and end interactions with a positive message.
SROs need to emphasize the overall safety of schools and rarity of violence, particularly targeted incidents. Using specific, age-appropriate examples, officers can articulate ways they contribute to school safety and describe other methods that help ensure security (e.g., locked doors and surveillance cameras).14
Students need opportunities to ask questions about school safety and offer a voice in security planning. They often have valuable ideas to contribute.
If younger students typically see an LEO in plain clothes, a uniform may frighten them during emergency situations. Interacting with children while in uniform in a safe space prior to an incident can minimize this fear.
Officers should remind students to exercise caution, know how to respond in dangerous situations, and remain mindful of their surroundings. Equally important, students need to understand that the burden for safety is not theirs alone and that they do not have to endlessly worry. SROs need to discuss the possibility—but low probability—of an event occurring.15
SROs must emphasize that students often play the most critical role in school safety when they report suspicious behaviors or threats. Research has found that perpetrators often plan their attacks in advance. A study revealed that in 81 percent of school attacks, at least one other person—usually a peer—knew about it ahead of time.16
Officers should remind students to take all threats seriously, even those done in a joking manner, and, further, that partial information also proves valuable in preventing violence. Students do not need to investigate or piece concerns together. Rather, they can reach out to experienced SROs or LEOs who have the necessary skills and resources to recognize disconcerting behaviors or imminent threats.
In a follow-up study, researchers discovered that some of the most common reasons students do not report a threat or suspicious behavior included fearing negative repercussions, doubting the threat, and thinking they had more time to decide how to react.17 These particularly salient points can help officers when discussing with students their need to react quickly when observing conduct that may precipitate violence.
A “code of silence” may pervade the SRO’s school, as it does many others.18 However, research suggests that having proper reporting, assessment, and information sharing procedures in place can help prevent school violence. In fact, student reporting has helped avoid several incidents of targeted school violence.19
SROs should spread a message that reminds students “what you do matters and can save lives.” Success stories from the officer’s community or others may help break down barriers to reporting. Educating young people on how to report potential safety concerns and reassuring them about confidentiality or anonymity likely will decrease any hesitancy.
- Let students know they can make a difference in the safety and environment of their school.
- Caution them to be alert and report any threats or suspicious behavior.
- Share success stories with students.
- Educate them on how to report.
- Reassure students that their reports will be kept confidential and anonymous.
- Teach them the difference between tattling and telling a responsible adult about a problem or safety concern.
- Tell students to spread the message that what they do is important and can save lives.
SROs can relay valuable lessons to students through formal and informal training opportunities. For example, teaching them to recognize the difference between reporting for safety’s sake and tattling is important.20
Educating students on topics focused not on violence but on safety also proves beneficial. Simply explaining what to do when stopped by a police officer while driving can provide opportunities to interact with students and adults.
To increase their effectiveness, SROs can embed various targeted violence prevention practices in larger schoolwide prevention efforts. Arguably, the most essential area for formal or informal training is the necessity for recognizing and reporting “leakage”—when a troubled student’s desire to carry out an attack surfaces.21 Again, one study on school attacks found that at least one person knew about the event ahead of time in four out of five incidents.22 Training and discussions regarding leakage are particularly essential in high school and middle school settings, where the threat often originates from within.
For example, active shooters involved in targeted violence in middle and high schools already had access to the location and potential victims. The FBI’s research of incidents between 2000 and 2015 established that 14 of 16 high school shooting incidents were committed by current students at the affected schools during the time of attack. In one incident, the school was targeted by a 19-year-old former student. In another event, the culprit was a high school student transferring buses in front of the affected school.23 Similarly, in middle and junior high schools, 6 of 7 shooters were current students.24
Though training in addressing leakage is essential, SROs must take time to impart a thorough understanding of what to look and listen for so that erroneous assumptions and out-of-date thinking is not relayed in error. To this end, the FBI offers a valuable resource titled Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks.25
Developing an understanding of the “whys” includes educating students to understand behaviors of potential concern, meanings behind communications, and where to look and listen. For example, a person on a trajectory toward violence in school may have a grievance that originates from outside the school building. Students, faculty members, or administrators may have a personal issue of concern, such as financial problems or trouble with a spouse or parents.
Another major opportunity for interaction can arise during training focused on bullying and prevention strategies. This problem often can lead to students feeling isolated and fearful, which can increase the likelihood of engagement in violence.26 A joint study conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that 71 percent of perpetrators of targeted school attacks felt bullied prior to the incident, and revenge motivated 61 percent of the subjects.27
SROs should become familiar with state bullying laws, advocate prevention methods, foster a climate that does not tolerate this behavior, and work with the school’s antibullying program.28 If one does not exist, this may present a perfect opportunity for the SRO and school administrators to work collaboratively to develop a comprehensive plan. Such an effort also should address cyberbullying, brought on by the exponential increase in Internet sites, applications, and sophisticated cell phones. Understanding available resources and current trends is key.
Students should receive education on nonviolent conflict resolution strategies and appropriate actions to take when they or others face bullying.29 Several local and federal websites have centralized resources on the subject, among them the main federal online resource stopbullying.gov.30
Crisis response matters comprise part of all school training, whether for power failures, fires, or tornadoes. Viewing targeted violence as part of the realm of all necessary training options helps to remove the fear perhaps brought on by isolated training on the topic. Familiarity with what could happen also prevents denial that can lead to inactivity in an emergency.
Therefore, SROs should include students, faculty and staff members, and other first responders in crisis response training, simulations, and drills.31 Such training should include information on building-access controls and related options. The federally supported training Run, Hide, Fight can open discussions that will help everyone know what to do when violence occurs in the cafeteria, hallway, parking lot, or other open spaces on school grounds.32
ASSESSING AND MANAGING POTENTIAL THREATS
Making Reporting Easy
Schools should offer tip lines and other related systems so students can report suspicious or threatening behavior.33 They need to consider the audience when developing such systems. For instance, the prevalence of cell phones may make tip lines that allow text messages more useful than e-mail, phone, or in-person methods.
Reporting options should be readily available; for example, schools could consider hallway posters, student ID cards, and lanyards with available phone numbers, websites, or e-mail addresses printed on them.34 Incoming information must be evaluated immediately. SROs need to ensure that everyone understands their roles.35
Schools should consider whether they want to implement either anonymous or confidential reporting systems. Anonymous reporting systems should alleviate students’ fear of retribution, a common reason for not reporting.36 However, they also prohibit the ability for schools to follow up with the person submitting the report. Thus, dishonest students can intentionally report false or misleading information in an attempt to haze, retaliate, or harass.
Because of these potential consequences, schools may consider implementing confidential reporting systems. When reporting is not anonymous, SROs should reassure students that as long as they report in good faith, they will not face disciplinary action. But, districts and schools need to establish and articulate to students whether they will take such measures against those who deliberately give false or misleading information.37
Handling Incoming Information
School policies and procedures must provide guidance on how to respond to a threat or suspicious behavior. The SRO’s role in this process should be articulated in advance in a memorandum of agreement or other document explaining the roles of both law enforcement and school officials. Policies and procedures already in place that determine consequences for making the threat (e.g., disciplinary actions or criminal charges) help streamline the process when time is short.
Several states mandate the creation of TATs to manage information on persons of concern. If a team does not exist, the SRO can discuss the value of a TAT with district and school officials and help establish this valuable resource. The multidisciplinary TAT should include individuals already involved in the school regularly who have broad resources and experience in pertinent positions (e.g., school administrator, counselor or other mental health professional, SRO or local law enforcement partner, or legal counsel).
No matter how they are documented, policies and procedures should identify and define the roles of team members, specify the “threshold of concern” articulating when the TAT will become involved, discuss how to conduct a threat assessment, provide guidance on the information team members should gather, and outline how to respond to different threat levels.38 A variety of resources exist on how to establish and manage an effective TAT.39
Building a cohesive team helps give confidence to the threshold for engagement and appropriate methods for investigation and response. When responding, TATs need to consider not only the initial concern but appropriate follow-up actions for the student in question.40 TAT members should receive training on how to assess these situations and meet regularly, even if a threat has not occurred.41
Once a student has reported a threat, school officials must determine the appropriate course of action. All threats require some level of assessment. School administrators may find that they can identify the level of concern for most threats quickly, but some instances will require a more thorough assessment.42 Once a threat reaches a predetermined threshold, the TAT should conduct a full investigation and assess the likelihood of the individual carrying it out.
“Officers should establish connections—based on mutual trust and respect—with students prior to an incident.”
TAT members should have a process in place that helps clarify roles and responsibilities to ensure that no fact or person of concern goes unaddressed. In general, team members need to speak with everyone involved, including the student who made the threat, anyone who may have overheard, and the student (if known) who reported it.
Teams must consider contextual information, amount of detail, and potential motives when assessing the potential danger.43 When deciding how to handle the student who made the threat, they should identify and address any underlying issues that may have prompted the threat or behavior.44
An engaged and informed School Resource Officer can help prevent violence in schools both formally and informally. This should involve extensive attempts to build relationships with students and those interacting with them. These efforts will improve school climate, an important barometer in determining its overall health. SROs also need to consider ways to bring their expertise into the school through a variety of training opportunities.
When concerning information surfaces, the SRO’s ability to reach out to a threat assessment team—and the group’s ability to reach the officer—can quickly aid in coordinating a team that will both assess and properly manage a person who has exhibited behaviors of concern.
Ms. Schweit can be contacted at Katherine.firstname.lastname@example.org and Ms. Mancik at Ashley.email@example.com.