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Westmoreland

Rush to add school resource officers must be done right, organizations say

Jamie Martines
| Saturday, May 26, 2018, 6:06 p.m.
Hempfield School District's chief resource officer, Len Lander, watches the hallways as students change classes at Hempfield Area High School on Friday, April 6, 2018. The school employs seven police officers as resource officers, who can perform investigations and make arrests if needed.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Hempfield School District's chief resource officer, Len Lander, watches the hallways as students change classes at Hempfield Area High School on Friday, April 6, 2018. The school employs seven police officers as resource officers, who can perform investigations and make arrests if needed.

As area districts consider adding or expanding the presence of security officers in schools, state and national school policing programs urge administrators to make sure officers first have the right training.

“We want to make sure, as much as we can, that departments are doing the best job that they can in selecting these officers,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO).

In the weeks since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., districts across Pennsylvania and the United States have shown an increased interest in improving school security.

School boards with Franklin Regional and Pittsburgh's North Hills school districts started taking steps toward forming school police forces. Greensburg Salem, Norwin and Plum also are considering ways to add armed officers to school buildings as district budget negotiations continue.

On Friday, a middle school in central Indiana became the 21st U.S. school in 2018 where someone was shot and injured. A week earlier, 10 people died and 10 were injured by a gunman at a high school outside Houston, Texas.

“It is everything that is happening,” Robert Perkins, Norwin school board president, said of the reason behind their interest in possibly hiring the district's first school resource officer.

Franklin Regional officials last week voted to establish a three-member school police force in addition to the school resource officer already provided through the Murrysville Police Department.

“The world has changed, and we must adapt to it,” police Chief Tom Seefeld said.

Interest in school policing, however, isn't a new trend, Canady pointed out.

Such conversations widely increased following the Columbine (Colo.) High School shooting in 1999 and the one at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, he said.

“Some of the same conversations that are happening right now were happening then, they just weren't of the magnitude that they are now,” said Canady, noting the 24-hour news cycle and social media have amplified more-recent discussions.

Growing ranks

Of the more than 98,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the country, about 42 percent reported having at least one school resource officer working at least one day per week during the 2015-16 school year, according to a report released in March by the National Center for Education Statistics. That's up from 32 percent a decade earlier.

But it's unclear exactly how many school police and resource officers there are because those officers are not required to register with a state or national database.

NASRO estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 resource officers working in schools nationwide, a range based on 2007 data from the Department of Justice and the number of officers the organization has trained.

Though organizations such as NASRO and state chapters provide and advocate for officer training, such training is not mandated at the state or national level.

That's why school officials must consider the varied roles officers will play — teacher, mentor, law enforcement officer — as these programs take shape, said Jeffrey Sgro, a sergeant with South Fayette Township police and a school resource officer in the South Fayette School District.

Sgro has been in law enforcement 25 years, including five as a school resource officer. He is president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Resource Officers, which works to support about 460 school resource officers statewide. Sgro sees resource officers as the bridge between school districts and police departments. For example, he said that he works to build relationships with students by participating in the district's underwater robotics program and assisting with driver safety and drug education programs.

But getting on the ground to interact with a kindergartner one moment and debating with a senior the next doesn't come naturally to everyone, Sgro said. He advocates for districts to screen officers and ensure they have the right training to work with children and young adults.

“I think what we're seeing is the importance of the (school resource officer),” Sgro said. “It's not just a guy on campus with a gun to protect kids.”

Reporters Joe Napsha and Patrick Varine contributed to this report.Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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