EDITORIAL: What makes schools safer?

HOW ODD TO HEAR debate over police officers in public schools sound as relevant today as it was 15 years ago. But if you’re not now an educator or the parent of a school-age child, would you even know that police officers once assigned to many local schools are gone?

Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett did. He campaigned on the issue last year, and now that’s he’s in office he’s offering deputies part-time to the four school districts that don’t currently have what are called school resource officers (SROs); Hudson and Germantown would share the services of one deputy, Chatham and New Lebanon would share the other. The sheriff has volunteered the two shared SROs out of his budget, so there’s no cost to the taxpayers of the four districts.

What could be wrong with this offer? Why would the sheriff have to assure school board members at two recent meetings that this isn’t a plan to station “storm troopers” in school hallways? Nobody accused him of wanting to do that, but his exaggeration gets to the point that what he sees as making kids and teachers safer others might question. They’re asking whether his plan is the best way to accomplish his goal.
Common sense might lead most of us to conclude that schools must be safer places when a trained police officer is present. Unfortunately, nobody has measured exactly how much safer, if any, SROs make a school.

The one thing we do know is that schools in general are still very safe places for children. And between 1992 and 2011, based on available data, they became even safer places. That’s no comfort to the devastated families of Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine High School or any of the other places where horrible school murders were committed. But it’s a fact.

What we don’t know is the answer to the question: What’s the most effective way to make schools safer? SROs may appear to have been the cause of safer schools, but the data don’t prove it. Maybe other actions we’ve taken have made us, for now, a less violent society overall, though you might not believe that if you watch TV news.

Some research shows that stationing police officers in schools leads to more kids in trouble with the law rather than facing in-school discipline. But a recent report from the Congressional Research Service says there’s not nearly enough evidence to conclude that having SROs inevitably leads to more kids being treated as criminals. And maybe the prospect of a criminal case is a deterrent that will improve school safety. Whatever the case, the public wariness of a regular police presence in school does help explain the sheriff’s need to reassure his audiences with the promise of no “storm troopers.”

As Hudson school board President Kelly Frank put it, she supports the SRO program but doesn’t want school to “feel like a police state.”
Enough. It’s time to muzzle the inflammatory rhetoric. Sheriff Bartlett is doing his job by deploying his limited resources in ways he believes will best serve the public. He cannot wait for more definitive research to guide him if, as a senior law enforcement official, he sees an unmet safety need. His swift and practical plan to do what he can to provide greater security in public schools throughout the county is welcome news.

School board members have an obligation to question the effectiveness of police officers in our schools and to participate in defining the role SROs play as members of the school community. But sadly it’s long past the time when schools can ignore the need to engage with law enforcement when it comes to threats of physical violence.

Every school board and administration is different, and each will have different ideas about the duties of an SRO and the principles that guide the district’s SRO program. For that reason the federal Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services Office recommends that each district have a memorandum of understanding–a written agreement–that “clearly state[s] the roles and responsibilities of the actors involved in the program.”

Creating this memorandum is a priority and it couldn’t come at a worse time, as districts scramble to complete their budgets. But that’s no excuse for delay. The sheriff believes his plan will make schools safer. The districts must work out SRO agreements quickly or explain to the public why their plans for enhancing the safety of our schools are better than those of Sheriff Bartlett.

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