The job of being a Texas school-based law enforcement officer has grown more complex after the 2018 school shooting in Santa Fe that killed 10 and wounded 13, inspiring hundreds of school-based officers to attend a four-day training by the Texas School Safety Center, in session this week at the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center.
“We want officers working in schools to be well trained and to understand their roles,” said Joe Munoz, program manager for school-based law enforcement education at the center. Some 200 regional school-based police, sheriff’s deputies and troopers are attending the training.
The role of school-based cop has evolved over time and ramped up in the post-Columbine era of school shootings.
From Officer Friendly back in the 1960s, designed to help kids understand police officers were their friends, to D.A.R.E. or Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers in the just-say-no-to drugs 1980s, school-based police in recent years have come to play a more complex role of mentor, school safety expert and behavior specialist, according to center personnel.
Trainer Bill Avera, police chief of the Jacksonville Independent School District, addressed a roomful of school officers on Tuesday morning, emphasizing what school-based law enforcement is and what it isn’t.
“We are independent school district employees,” Avera said. “We work for the school district. The board of trustees empowers you to help keep schools safe in the way they see fit, and the superintendent is your boss.”
A school-based law enforcement officer’s job is not to enforce school discipline, Avera said. That responsibility falls to schools’ administrations.
Avera touched on some of the issues school-based officers might have to deal with, like cyberbullying, listening to kids talk about suicidal thoughts, negotiating the Federal Education Records Privacy Act, dealing with upset parents or former employees and understanding and implementing protocol for handling serious threats to a school.
In Texas, the state where more than half of all school-based police departments in the nation are based, the presence of either school district-based officers or Special Resource Officers hired from municipal police forces to work in schools, has nearly tripled over the past 17 years, Avera said.
This year, Senate Bill 11, a comprehensive school finance reform bill that was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, mandated several new requirements for school safety that require the participation of school-based law enforcement.
“We’re going to have to look at crisis plans and emergency operations plans, including an active shooter plan at every district, to make sure there’s one in place,” Avera said.
The new law recommends that districts adopt standard response protocols and familiarize schools with them, and mandates comprehensive behavioral threat assessment teams in every district, made up of law enforcement, counselors, nurses, teachers, behavioral specialists and administrators to identify troubling behaviors. Those teams will focus on a preventive rather than reactive response to the potential of school threats, Avera said.
Additionally, those preventive policies must be trauma-informed, Avera said.
“It’s a great, comprehensive school safety bill and we’re grateful lawmakers shepherded it through,” Avera said.
Bobby Brown, a police officer with the Brazosport Independent School District for 14 years, began working in schools initially because that’s where he could get a law enforcement job. Now, he wouldn’t work anywhere else, he said.
“The best part of this job is having an impact on lives,” Brown said. “That’s the biggest reward when a kid leaves your school and comes back and says, ‘If not for you, I don’t know what would have happened to me.’”
Brown runs a mentor program, plays basketball and volleyball with students and hangs out in classrooms, anywhere he can have direct access to students who may need support, he said.
The goal of the Texas School Safety Center, authorized in 2001 by the Texas legislature following the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, is in part to educate officers working in schools to interact professionally and effectively with students, Munoz said.
“We’re not there to enforce the law. Mentoring plays a big role. We’re there to deter crime. The last result we want is for a kid to enter the criminal justice system.”