What Your Kids' School Safety Officer Wants You to Know
They might be police officers, private contractors or school employees but every school has a team in charge of your child's safety.
Part of the back-to-school tradition is meeting your child’s new teacher or principal. But many parents may not know the various employees who help keep their children safe at school, let alone what they do. So MetroKids reached out to a number of school districts in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and here is what local experts want parents to understand.
School safety is a team effort
Different personnel look out for different aspects of student safety.
Some, such as guidance counselors, are school employees. In some cases, civilian contractors, such as guards or consultants, are hired by school districts.
Increasingly, school districts work with school resource officers (SROs). In New Jersey, SROs are police officers who serve a school district through an agreement with the police department. In Delaware, SROs are state police or constables. SROs offer districts multiple support services, including educational resources for staff and students.
Having an SRO isn’t a stigma and doesn’t mean that a school is bad, emphasizes Pat Kissane, deputy chief of the Fort Lee, NJ police department and head of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers. Kissane says SROs receive special training, including how to protect students’ rights.
The national Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provides guidelines to protect student records and outlines how they can be shared. It’s just one of the many regulations — federal, state and local — that govern policies that affect school security.
Arming teachers or anyone in schools other than on-duty police officers worries some law-enforcement professionals. Part of their concern is whether those people are properly trained in the use of weapons and protocols. Also, in the event of a shooting, it may not be clear to first responders who are the perpetrators and who are the “good guys.”
A seat at the (lunch) table
State troopers and constables play a “preventive role” in schools, says Alex Nowell, public safety officer for Red Clay Consolidated School District in Delaware. They work on de-escalating and resolving tensions. “We’re not there to arrest; we’re there to assist staff. Safety is paramount.”
Part of that role is “an open-door policy of communication,” Nowell explains. Constables often sit at the lunch table with students and become mentors to students. He’s known students to speak candidly to security officers about specific struggles they’re having or about a situation at home, so officers become integral parts of the students’ support systems. It’s not unusual for those bonds to continue after students graduate, Nowell says.
There are kids in personal crisis on a daily basis, Kissane notes. When SROs develop relationships and trust in a school, they’re able to directly help those youngsters. Whether the problem is abuse, sexting, money or suicidal thoughts, Kissane says SROs listen and try to intervene in the most appropriate way.
Non-violent problem solving and conflict resolution is a major focus of security officers in Camden, NJ schools, says Maita Soukup, senior director of communications. Security officers and teachers are trained to help students mediate conflict and return the students to productive, positive school behavior.
Communication is key
Effective communication is an essential component for safety.
For instance, if there’s a fight over the weekend and the participants have to sit next to each other on Monday morning, an SRO might be able to use that information to help prevent an eruption, says Kissane. Similarly, if peers, parents or staff hear talk of self-harm or threats, communicating such tips — even anonymously — to the security team can help get students lifesaving intervention.
SROs and other safety officers often provide programs for students. They might educate them about vaping or how to read a parking ticket or accident report. These programs have the added benefit of opening up a dialogue with students, who will then make comments and raise issues that can be followed up later in private.
Safety officers are also often speakers at parent gatherings and PTA meetings and help schools with their safety plans and drills. They work with staff to review safety protocols, address questions and concerns, and clarify details that can become important during a crisis.
Ann L. Rappoport, PhD, is a contributing writer to MetroKids.