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September 21, 2009

Squad cars at schools a sign of relief, not crime



Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, September 20, 2009

At a recent social event, an acquaintance of mine told me she would not send her children to an east side school (that shall remain nameless) because of its crime problem. Knowing a little about the subject matter, I was confident the school she identified didn’t have any more challenges than the other schools in the city so it prompted me to inquire about the origin of her information. Her answer: “Because there is always a squad car parked in front of the school.”

Quite frankly, I can see how many citizens might surmise that a squad car parked at an educational institution may be an obvious identifier to high crime or other problems. As logical as that observation may be, it is wrong.

Nearly every middle school and high school in Aurora has a School Resource Officer (SRO) assigned. (As a matter of fact, Aurora Police was one of the first departments in the State to assign SRO’s.) While an SRO is responsible for anything police-related that transpires within the institution, they play a far more important role within the schools.

As some kids reach middle school and high school age, their perception of the police becomes adversarial (especially for those students who are inclined to test the boundaries). These students then tend to mistrust and create distance from the police. School Resource Officers reverse the distance and trust issues because for many students, the only police officer they know is the one who works in their school. Therefore, they become more inclined to accept guidance and redirection from them.

The SRO’s serve as extensions of the school staff and work very closely with the administration and teachers to ensure each child a safe environment in which to learn. The SRO’s handle mediation among students before they escalate into criminal activity. They are often alerted to tensions among students, and because they have developed a rapport with those involved, the situation can be diffused.

Police officers assigned to schools can be seen as an extension of the community oriented policing philosophy. They are there to bridge the gap between the students and the police and their taking the time to build relationships means a better quality of life for everyone in the institution. However, their purpose runs deeper. According to school violence expert Lt. Col. David Grossman, there has not been a school shooting where a police officer was present. In the Columbine school shooting, the assigned police officer left the premises and the assailants executed their carefully planned rampage. The other schools that suffered such tragedies did not have a police officer assigned.

Like all police officers, SRO’s are trained in “active assailant” which means that if a threat presents itself within a school, they move toward the threat to eliminate it. While optimally, the active assailant team consists of four officers that work strategically as a team to directly address a threat (such as a student with a gun), an officer already inside the school can act singularly to prevent the shooter from killing or injuring more people. Waiting for officers to arrive can mean crucial time is lost resulting in many more casualties.

In the wake of the school shootings across the country, many School Resource Officers believe they have played an integral role in the prevention of violence through their intelligence gathering, interaction with students, and by their mere presence.

There are some representatives of academia that believe a police officer in their school brings with them an image of crime and negativity. Judging from my acquaintance’s negative perception of the squad car out front of the school, there is obviously some merit to this belief. With enough education and dialogue, perhaps we can begin to alter our perceptions and change our paradigms so that the presence of the police in our schools brings a sense of relief rather than a fear of crime.

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