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School Resource Officers: What Are Districts’ Responsibilities?

On September 8, 2016, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) and the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) issued joint guidance to assist state and local education agencies in improving school resource officer (SRO) policies and practices.  The guidance is a result of increasing concerns within and among USDOE and USDOJ staff about the potential for violations of students’ civil rights and unnecessary citations or arrests of students in schools.

The joint guidance highlights the perspective that SROs must act in accordance with the specific needs of each school and district.  The role of law enforcement in school learning environments should be determined by local educational officials in consultation with local law enforcement agencies, school leaders, educators, families, students, and community and civil rights stakeholders.

Where school resource officers are used, education leaders and local law enforcement agencies should work together to understand local needs and reexamine policies and practices to ensure the proper role of law enforcement within a community’s schools. School districts that choose to use SROs should 1. ) Incorporate them responsibly into school learning environments and ensure that they have no role in administering school discipline and 2.) Help them minimize citations and arrests of students and use diversion programs and alternatives.  If school resource officers are not properly hired, trained, evaluated, and integrated into the school community – or if they are given responsibilities more appropriately carried out by educators – negative outcomes, including violations of students’ civil rights, can and have occurred.

To assist state and local education agencies in carrying out this charge, USDOE and USDOJ engaged in the development of the Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) rubrics. These rubrics offer guidance to communities and law enforcement agencies to help those interested in implementing the most effective school resource officer programs.  The basic steps they describe align with the most effective policing practices and can be found at:  www.cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools.

Districts that are looking to develop or revise written agreements with the goal of preventing unnecessary or inappropriate arrests, referrals to law enforcement, contact with the juvenile justice system, and violations of civil rights laws can use the SECURe rubrics to create responsible school-police partnerships.

Five action steps that can help ensure that SROs are incorporated responsibly into school learning environments are to:

  1. Create sustainable partnerships and formalize memoranda of understanding (MOUs) among school districts, local law enforcement agencies, juvenile justice entities, and civil rights and community stakeholders;
  2. Ensure that MOUs meet constitutional and statutory civil rights requirements;
  3. Recruit and hire effective SROs and school personnel;
  4. Keep your SROs and school personnel well trained; and
  5. Continually evaluate SROs and school personnel, and recognize good performance.

Pennsylvania’s current Model MOU does meet constitutional and statutory civil rights requirements.  As for elements three, four and five listed above, those exist outside the MOU and should be addressed with the local law enforcement agency providing the SRO.  Whether your district’s SRO and school personnel are effective depend on the ongoing trainings and evaluations provided.  Recognize good performance, of course, but be sure to address situations where a particular SRO may not be effective – after multiple opportunities for training and ongoing evaluation.  Certainly, districts can hold discussions with the law enforcement agency as to a different SRO in the district.

As always, Stock and Leader’s School Law Group is available to assist you if your District would like to develop or revise written agreements with local law enforcement agencies to adhere to this recent USDOE / USDOJ guidance.

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