Children with Special Needs and the School Resource Officer (SRO)

Posted by on November 14, 2019

Numerous incidents of questionable interactions between School Resource Officers (SROs) or local police officers and children with special needs have shocked the public conscience in recent years.  These unsuccessful events, often recorded by students and posted on social media, have understandably drawn the attention of the national news media and education leaders. 

We are often asked by school officials, law enforcement executives, and the media: What can schools do to minimize these unfortunate events?

Below are some considerations that we include in our trainings of SRO’s, local police, and school-based security personnel.  No one has all of the answers, nor is there a guarantee that after training there will not be issues between law enforcement and children with special needs.  What we do offer, however, are suggestions and considerations on how to minimize these negative encounters and events. 

Tips for successfully managing SRO/school police relationships with children having special needs

Here are a few key points from our training.

  • Select the right officer and involve school officials in the SRO selection process. The selection of the SRO is critical.  Not every great street police officer will be successful in the school environment.  We have seen some cases where SROs have been assigned to SRO duties as punishment.  Could there be a bigger mistake?  Fortunately, that is not the norm.  The vast majority of SROs are excellent officers who care about children and want to be in schools. However, we do see too often that the school officials have little-to-no role in the selection of the SRO.  This is a mistake.  Schools should be part of the SRO selection process. 
  • Train SROs and administrators. Once selected, the SRO must be trained to the school environment.  Too often we see good officers who want to be of help to school officials, but they have received no training on their duties in the school.  We love to see SROs AND their school administrators attend the same training to provide a common foundation of understanding of school administrator and SRO roles, challenges, and management.
  • Have clear and updated MOUs. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the police agency and school district must be in place and reviewed annually.   The MOU must outline the duties and training the officer(s) will receive.  Too often we see MOUs in place but no one at the building level, including the SRO, having a clear understanding of what the officer should be doing.  A job description is also important.  The SRO supervisor from the police/sheriff/school police department should also understand what the SRO should be doing and be in a position to meet with school officials to iron out any misunderstandings when they occur.  And they will occur!
  • Tailor SRO training for realistic school contexts and scenarios. The training the officer receives should include how to relate to all students, of course, but particularly children with special needs.  This training is critical and should be done by someone from special education departments or special education backgrounds.  Officers should observe what a day is like in the classrooms or work areas where children with special needs learn.  When in this environment the officer should not be in uniform.  The officer should interact with the students and not simply be an observer.  The officer should develop a relationship with the students.  Later the officer should make “friendly” stops by the classroom or areas while in uniform and let the students see the officer in her/his gear. 
    • Many will say the officer(s) have attended state or national SRO trainings and certification as an SRO.  This is valuable training.  But schools should ensure the officer is getting the latest and most up-to-date training on working with children with special needs and school staff at their specific school site and district. 
  • Distinguish SRO duties from administrative, disciplinary roles to be performed by school administrators. Building level administration and teachers should take the lead in dealing with student discipline, but it is particularly critical when dealing with children with special needs.  The SRO or local police officer is there in a support role to administration.  We see too often the SRO being sent to deal with a difficult student behavior situation without even the support of building administration.  This is a potential for disaster.  Educators should take the lead in discipline and disruptive behavior, with SROs for support when potential safety threats or circumstances warrant.
  • When tasked with intervening, do not be surprised when SROs respond as police officers, not as school employees might do. One point that has mystified us for decades is that when confronted with an issue, the SRO/Police Officer will respond as they have been trained to manage an event. This means that it is likely they may respond in manner they have been taught in the police academy and field training/experience if working on the street.  Too often the schools, community, and media are unhappy with the way an officer has handled an incident.  Generally, we find in these incidents the officer has not been trained any differently by the school and/or for SRO-specific duties.  So why are we surprised, and often disappointed, when the officer responds based upon their only training in police academy and street work contexts?  Who really is to blame — the officer who works with the training he/she has received or not received, or the schools and police supervisors for not providing the SRO with school-specific training?

These are just a few points for consideration. Even if all the above steps are taken, human behavior cannot be perfectly predicted or managed.  But risks for negative outcomes can potentially be reduced by training.

Training resources for SRO/school police and school administrator programs

We do not provide basic SRO training, but we do provide specialized training for SROs/school police and administrators who want to be proactive in managing the more challenging aspects of SRO/school police and school administrator programs. For information see our school-administrator training programs for managing SRO/school police and administrator relationships. Contact Ken Trump to discuss details for specific programs in your school or region.

Chuck Hibbert is a Senior Consultant to National School Safety and Security Services.

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