Protecting Our Schools on a Budget: Are SRO’s the Only Answer?

If you are the Chief, a patrolman, detective, a school resource officer, or a parent there is a good chance you have found yourself in conversations with friends, colleagues, or citizens about school violence in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Whether these conversations take place in the squad room, a City Council meeting, or over dinner, it becomes obvious that there is no clear answer to the prevention of school violence. The depravity of the Sandy Hook shooting has shed a very public spot light on the dark reality of how vulnerable our youngest citizens can be at school.

School violence is unfortunately part of our American history dating back to the 18th Century. The Pontiac’s Rebellion school massacre of 1764 was regrettably our first introduction to this type of violence. On July 26th, 1764, four American Indian attackers shot and killed over eight school children along with their schoolmaster outside of what is now Greencastle, Pennsylvania. As our history progressed, school shootings did as well. Many believe the increased incidents of school shootings are a product of modern times. However, it has been deemed newsworthy as early as 1874.

After a Los Angeles high school student was shot and killed, the September 11th, 1874 edition of the Los Angeles Herald declared “This boy lost his life through the too common habit among boys of carrying deadly weapons. We do not know that this habit can be broken up. We do not know that school teachers have the right, or would exercise it if they had, of searching the pockets of their pupils, but it seems almost a necessity that some such rule be enforced… Nearly every school-boy carries a pistol, and the power of these pistols range from the harmless six-bit auction concern to the deadly Colt’s six-shooter.”

Colorado has the unfortunate distinction of being home to two of the worst school shootings in history. Columbine (1999) and Platte Canyon (2006) have not only changed the landscape of how law enforcement responds to such incidents, but they have been permanently imprinted into the national consciousness of school violence. With the infamy of these incidents, it is easy to forget that Colorado school shootings can be traced back almost 4 decades prior. On October 17th, 1961, a Morey Junior High student in Denver was shot and killed by a fellow student. Unfortunately, as time has marched on, school shootings in the United States have only increased. Any one even casually paying attention already knows that it’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when. For those of us in law enforcement, we must honestly ask ourselves not if it will happen, but will it happen on our watch in our jurisdiction.

As the tragedy of Sandy Hook was broadcast into the nations’ family rooms on December 14th, 2012, there has been a renewed outcry for increased protection of our school children to shield them from such evil. Before the crime scene was even cleared, the politicians and special interest groups were climbing over each other grabbing headlines to assign blame and offer irrational ‘solutions’ that fit their political views above that of our own children’s safety. On one side of the political aisle are politicians who would have the public believe gun bans, whistles, and call boxes are the only solutions. Politicians on the other side of the aisle want the public to believe armed teachers are the best answer. Members of academia have advocated scraping the Constitution and have told their students to vomit or urinate on potential attackers. Not to be outdone by the stories they cover, even journalists were jumping into the political absurdity by defending ‘Gun Free Zones’ and advocating for the development of bunker-like environments for schools while publicizing businesses who are pushing Kevlar backpacks to alleviate parents’ fears. The ‘good idea fairy’ has unfortunately been making the rounds.

As local and national politicians continue to play the blame game and fail to offer relevant, common sense approaches, communities are naturally turning to their local Police Departments and Sheriffs Offices for reassurance that their children are protected in their schools. On the national level and the local level, the only proposal that seems to have a wide base of support from all political sides is having an increased police presence in our schools.

A December 18th, 2012 (post Sandy Hook) national Gallop poll showed a whopping 87 percent of adults feel ‘Increasing the police presence at schools’ would be either a “very effective” or “somewhat effective” approach to “preventing mass shootings”. A closer examination of the poll results indicated the consensus crosses political affiliation showing 55 percent of Republicans, 52 percent of Democrats, and 53 percent of Independents feel “Increasing the police presence in schools” would be “very effective” in “preventing mass shootings”. Other proposed solutions included the banning of assault and semi-automatic firearms, arming teachers, and increased government spending on mental health yet none of these enjoyed a consensus and each showed considerable political bias towards one party or another.

The concept of Police Officers in our schools is not a new one. The National School Resource Officer Association credits Flint, Michigan with the first deployment of a School Resource Officer in 1959. Over the years, the popularity and successes of the SRO program have grown and made it widely accepted among the general public as well as the Law Enforcement community. A 2006 study by Hickman and Reeves published in Western Criminology Review showed nationally “SRO programs were operational in an estimated 43 percent of local police departments and 47 percent of sheriff’s departments.” Given the current political scrum over various ‘answers’ to school shootings, the SRO program has been under a microscope and has still managed to be widely adopted and come out of the debate relatively clean from partisan politics.

The public has clearly decided that they overwhelming favor an increased police presence in our schools; however, does that necessarily mean that the expansion of SROs into every school is the best solution for school safety? Law Enforcement agencies know that it is not as easy as waving a magic wand to create not only hundreds of new SROs to be placed in every school, but the millions of dollars of funding it will take to hire, train, equip and retain these SROs. Politicians on both the local and federal level like to talk about additional funding for these programs, but there is little hope, with or without additional grant dollars, of increasing the SRO ranks without considering the massive amount of money that would be needed to fund such an expansion.

Presently there are no bills in front of the Colorado Legislature requesting funding specifically for SROs despite public support from numerous legislators. Colorado State Senator Steven King (R-Grand Junction) recently submitted the “School Resource Officer Programs in Public Schools” bill, SB13-138. A close examination of the bill reveals that it does not request any funding for anything. Rather than adding School Resource Officers to our schools, it only adds an SRO to the School Safety Resource Center’s Advisory Board and requires them to hire a full-time grant writer to help school districts apply for grants to be used for unspecified school safety uses.

If a legislator wanted to author a bill that would fund a SRO in every Colorado school, what would it look like? The most recent data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment listed the average Colorado Police Officer salary at $59,791. According to the Colorado Department of Education there are 1,780 public schools, which if an SRO was placed in each of them, would cost a staggering annual total of $106,427,980. This astronomical amount does not include the $23,796,818 it would cost to provide the same protection to the 398 Colorado private schools would also benefit from an increased police presence. While placing an SRO in every school would significantly address the public’s plea of escalated police presence in educational institutions it is clearly not economically feasible.

Even if the money were available to fund such a project, it is still unlikely that an effective expansion of SROs would be possible. The SRO position is a unique and specialized assignment requiring a unique and special individual to fill it competently. Not every Police Officer can or even wants to be a SRO just as not every Police Officer can or wants to join K9 Units, SWAT Units, Motor Divisions or any other highly specialized unit. Even if an expansion of SROs to every school in Colorado were completely funded, there simply are not enough officers with the special skills that an SRO assignment would require.

During a January 13th, 2013 Wyoming Tribune Eagle interview when asked about expanding the Cheyenne Police Departments SRO program to elementary schools, former Avon (CO) Police Chief Brian Kozak (Currently Cheyenne, WY Police Chief) correctly noted “An added complication is that there wouldn’t be much traditional police work that an officer could do in an elementary school”. Even if criminal activity occurred amongst the students, beyond an armed response, there is little an SRO can do that a school administrator could not given the fact Colorado Revised Statute 18-1-801-Insufficient Age clearly states “No child under ten years of age shall be found guilty of any offense.” While an assigned SRO would still be able to quickly respond to violence, their daily police oriented work load would be minimal. “I believe that it is just as important to assign SROs to elementary schools, however their role would be vastly different than those in middle and high schools. The elementary school SRO would be more of an informal counselor and teacher. Of course they would take reports of child neglect and abuse and other crimes where children are the victims” says Sergeant Damon Vaz of the Aurora Police Department, who supervises their SRO Program. Acting as counselors and role models for youth is certainly important, however the elementary school SRO would find themselves very far removed from actual police work, and in the context of school safety, acting as little more than highly trained deterrents of external criminal activity. This begs the question, is this the best way to spend our limited resources? Likely, the answer is no.

If law enforcement agencies have decided to answer the public demand for increased police presence in the schools, but we have determined that the wisdom and funding needed to put an SRO in every school is unsustainable, what are we to do? How can we increase the time an officer spends on a school campus without affecting the budget or taking regular officers away from their regular duties during school visits?
Enter the substation. Thousands of agencies nationwide already employ substations. Despite their widespread use, the function of a substation varies widely from agency to agency. Some larger substations include detention cells, intox machines, interview rooms, and AFIS terminals. Others are slightly larger than a broom closet with a few computers to write reports. The locations of substations are as varied as their functions being placed anywhere from shopping malls to convenience stores.

Line level officers across the nation spend a considerable part of their day writing reports and filling out paperwork. Currently this takes place at either the police station, a substation, or in their patrol vehicles. From my experience working with numerous law enforcement agencies in Colorado, at least 30% to 40% of an Officer’s shift is spent completing reports, warrants, warrantless affidavits, citations, accident diagrams and returning phone calls and emails. Often times after a high call load day, an Officer may spend his/her entire shift completing paperwork.

That time could be better much better spent if it was completed at a substation on school grounds. A limited focus substation placed on school campuses that do not already have a dedicated SRO would maximize police presence in schools with little to no additional budget consequences. The amount of time Officers would be spending at the school substation would be the same amount of time they would already spend at a non-school substation, the Police Department, or parked in a quiet parking lot. That time would have the additional effect of placing a visible deterrent with parked police vehicles outside the school and it would drastically improve the chances that a Police Officer is on campus if an attack where to take place.

The school substation would have a limited but useful focus on paperwork and the clerical duties of police officers rather than suspect processing or equipment storage historically used in more traditional substations. This focus would keep potential costs low, as they would only require a small amount of space and a few computers, and it would reassure school districts that the police are not introducing criminal suspects or dangerous items to the school environment.

School districts are no less immune to limited budgets than Law Enforcement agencies. With many Colorado school districts already financially strapped, asking them to help fund a vast expansion of the SRO program to every school would likely be given the cold shoulder. However, a law enforcement agency willing to provide hours of officer presence for only the cost of a desk or two in the school office would undoubtedly get a much warmer response.

Budget sensitive law enforcement agencies will find that the school substations’ need for only limited equipment ensures low costs. The already low costs may be further reduced by relocating existing substations currently requiring commercial rent payments. Many departments could find additional savings by utilizing existing MDT’s for report writing thereby only needing a quiet place for the officer to sit down. I am confident the addition of a good coffee maker could entice officers to utilize these areas but in my experience officers need little motivation to make good use of a properly equipped substation. Over my law enforcement career it was clear the rank and file viewed substations as a sanctuary from excessive supervision endured at headquarters and preferred to complete their paperwork at the substation if given the opportunity.

The public mandate to prevent future Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Platte Canyon tragedies is loud and clear. Law enforcement agencies also have to meet the limited budgets provided by their county commissioners and city councils. Every agency, every school district, and every community has different needs, circumstances and fiscal environments. The school substation is not the magic wand solution for every agency and should not be used as a replacement for qualified School Resource Officers if funding is available. It should, however, be explored further as a viable option in light of current financial realities and the unlikelihood of them changing in the foreseeable future. School substations not only have little to no budgetary expenditures, but they squarely address what the public, with bipartisan support, has overwhelmingly expressed would be the most effective preventative measure. Before the ‘good idea fairy’ makes a visit to your agency, please consider the idea of school substations in your jurisdiction.