A Case for School Resource Officers in East Greenwich Elementary Schools
After the heartbreaking tragedy that befell the community of Uvalde, Texas, increased security in schools was, again, brought to the forefront of many parents’ minds. As the father of two children, as well as a retired Submarine Officer, safety and security are amongst my top priorities. East Greenwich currently employs two School Resource Officers (SROs) who are assigned to Cole Middle School and EG High School. Our town currently has no SROs assigned to its elementary schools. Although I am encouraged to know that our community is currently well-served by these two officers, I am very concerned that our elementary schools, unfortunately, remain soft targets.
As you may already be aware, three Rhode Island gun legislation measures were passed in the wake of this terrible crime: raising the legal age to purchase a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21 (the age for handguns was already set at 21), limiting the size of magazines, and prohibiting the open carry of rifles or shotguns. Voters may disagree about the effectiveness of these laws at preventing future acts of violence. However, my years of experience as a Force Protection Officer and Security Manager, responsible for training and overseeing Security Forces on several submarines and at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, I firmly believe that our elected town officials must not rely on this legislation alone to protect our school children. Furthermore, Town Councilors must show true leadership by enacting policies for the Town of East Greenwich, rather than relying on national or state legislation as the solution to local problems.
Security programs, in general, rely on a strategy of “defense in depth” meaning that there are several layers, barriers, or obstacles that a threat must penetrate, avoid, or subvert to accomplish their mission. Normally, these layers include technological solutions, physical barriers, as well as properly trained and equipped personnel as the last line of defense. Removing any one of above layers introduces vulnerabilities into the system and makes it easier for people with ill-intent to perpetrate their heinous acts.
It is important to understand that our town is continually implementing innovative ways in which to protect our schools, most of which cannot be made public for obvious security reasons. However, in addition to the actions that our police are currently taking, it is imperative that we add another layer of protection by installing SROs in our elementary schools. Allow me to explain my rationale.
How do SROs Work?
SROs are an invaluable source of protection. They observe the kids as they arrive at school, interact with them in the hallways between classes, eat lunch with students, coach sports, and generally have eyes and ears on tensions within the student body and the community. During their school careers, students get to know their SROs and learn that they can confide in them about bullying, abuse, and potential dangers. According to the School Safety Working Group’s report to the U.S. Department of Justice (2020), “The ability of specially selected and trained SROs to establish trust relationships with students has been demonstrated to prevent school shootings. In addition, there have been numerous documented instances of SROs directly intervening to prevent or quickly mitigate active school shootings ... The school personnel best positioned to respond to acts of violence are those with specialized training such as school resource officers…” (https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-w0891-pub.pdf).
SROs are not disciplinarians and are not tasked with imposing punishments. They should not serve in school support roles as a hall monitor, substitute teacher, or cafeteria monitor in place of a teacher or aide.
Detractors would have the public believe that advocates for better school security wish to arm teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although teachers can play a role in protecting students, their primary job is to teach. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, “A school resource officer shall be defined as a career law enforcement officer with sworn authority who is deployed by an employing police department or agency in a community-oriented policing assignment to work in collaboration with one or more schools. School resource officers should have completed at least forty (40) hours of specialized training in school policing, administered by an accredited agency, before being assigned” (https://statepolicies.nasbe.org/health/categories/social-emotional-climate/school-resource-officer-training/rhode-island).
SROs Prevent School Violence
According to Frelich et al., in their report to the Department of Justice entitled “Understanding the Causes of School Violence Using Open Source Data” (2021), "Schools with adolescent shootings that had police officers, or their building was multi-story, increased the odds that they would experience a non-fatal, as opposed to a fatal, shooting…Our case studies highlighted the key role of opportunities. Many offenders were able to enter the school with a gun unmolested and without any restrictions at all. Others accessed firearms while they were underage." In other words, when the researchers examined the individual decision making of bad actors, they found that, for crime to occur, there must be the opportunity to commit the act. They explained that successful interventions, such as the presence of SROs, are often able to reduce or remove the availability of crime opportunities (https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/301665.pdf).
It should be noted that recent gun legislation does nothing to prevent people under the age of 21 from borrowing a family member’s gun or buying one illegally. And it does not stop people over the age of 21 from threatening our students. When contacted about adding SROs to East Greenwich elementary schools in June, three School Committee members and one Town Council member responded, none of whom indicated at the time that they would advocate for more SROs. In fact, one School Committee member shared the belief that addressing the social emotional concerns of EG students is the most effective method for preventing school violence. Certainly, mental health services are sorely needed amongst our youth, especially after the unintentional harm brought about by nearly two years of remote learning, but how do in-school services reach people who may not attend EG schools or who have been expelled? According to the United States Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report “K-12, Characteristics of School Shootings” (2020), “The shooter in about half of school shootings was a student or former student; in the other half, the shooter had no relationship to the school, was a parent, teacher, or staff, or his or her relationship to the school was unknown, according to the data” (https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-20-455.pdf). Therefore, in about half of all cases, schools could not have met the social emotional needs of the school shooters because they were not students.
Here are several cases in which SROs intervened in potentially dangerous situations in schools:
Other Towns are Taking Action to Prevent School Violence
Should East Greenwich adopt my plan to increase the number of SROs, we would not be alone. In Rhode Island, North Providence currently assigns at least one SRO to its elementary schools. Westerly is currently on track to add SROs to all of its primary schools. In Connecticut, New Milford, Killingly, East Hampton, Ansonia, New Fairfield, and Madison have all recently hardened their schools, including many elementary schools, by hiring more SROs.
Funding for SROs
Resource Officers are members of the East Greenwich Police force, which is overseen by the EG Town Council and funded by the town. They are not employees of the schools. In 2019, the state began a 3-year program that would provide up to 50% of an SROs salary for towns that created new positions for SROs in their schools. This spring, six Democratic State Representatives proposed legislation that would extend this grant of state funds indefinitely, thus assisting more districts (including East Greenwich) to add SROs to the layered defense of their schools. To date, the legislation has not moved out of committee review, and it will be up to the General Assembly to take up the topic in their next session. It is important to note that the use of SROs enjoys bipartisan support, as it should.
Towns can receive additional funds for SRO programs through federal grants from the Department of Justice, including the Community Oriented Policing Services in Schools program (https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools). South Kingstown has been the beneficiary of this grant.
In May, Governor McKee announced that the Rhode Island Department of Education will authorize up to $500,000 in emergency approval through the School Building Authority for each district to make whatever additional security upgrades their school facilities need (https://governor.ri.gov/press-releases/governor-mckee-ride-and-law-enforcement-partner-local-education-agencies-immediate). Town Councilors should advocate for some of these funds to be designated for the hiring of SROs.
If SROs are deemed a worthy expense at Cole Middle School and EG High School, then why are we falling short in our elementary schools? We cannot be assured that our community is fully protected without adding this extra layer of protection.
The tragedy in Uvalde serves as a reminder that, even with officers at the scene of a crime, lack of training, poor communication, and simple human error can prevent the necessary life-saving actions from taking place. As a candidate for Town Councilor, I believe that we owe our Police Department the support, equipment, and training they need to promptly and decisively respond to a similar situation at one of our schools.
Furthermore, some community members may want to believe that a dangerous incident like Uvalde’s could never occur in our peaceful town. The GAO (2020) found that, although towns such as EG may have fewer incidents, “Suburban and rural, wealthier, and low minority schools had more suicides and school-targeted shootings, which had the highest fatalities per incident. Overall, more than half of the 166 fatalities were the result of school-targeted shootings.” East Greenwich is not immune and needs to take precautions.
My experience with training Sailors to be the security force aboard submarines makes me uniquely qualified to work with the EGPD and the School Committee to put in place the most comprehensive, robust school security program possible. I understand how to perform a threat assessment and how to make our schools harder targets against a wide variety of scenarios. I also understand that improvements and changes cannot happen overnight, but we need to begin taking action now so that we are ready to face challenges that might arise in the future. Failure to do so will only increase the risk to our schools and our children.
Protecting our schools should not be an “either/or” situation; we need to apply all approaches to make our students, teachers, and school staff as safe as we can.