The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

August 23, 2013

Officials: School Resource Officers do help


Associated Press

— GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — No statistics show what hasn't happened because of school resource officers, Alan Cosby, superintendent of Etowah County Schools, said.

"We'll never know what all you've prevented," Cosby told officers who went through training last week at the Etowah County Sheriff's Office.

"There's no statistic out there. We probably don't want to know."

Cosby said he remembers when there were no SROs, and he thinks the presence of officers in schools makes a huge difference.

"We appreciate what you do," he said. "You put your lives on the line and now we couldn't operate without you."

Cosby said times have changed and principals rely heavily on SROs.

"They're the first line of defense for principals," he said. "You bring so much to what we do as educators."

SROs have played a big role in helping create safety plans in their schools.

The state Department of Education requires every school to have a safety plan on file in Montgomery and the plan is placed in Virtual Alabama — a mapping system that gives immediate access to maps and other important information within the schools.

It's important that the officers be familiar with the schools and the safety plans. That's why the training was important for them.

From classroom time to actual training for an active shooting situation, it's all about being as prepared as possible.

Drills, for instance, traditionally have been done at convenient times.

But officials are looking into having drills for tornadoes, fires and lockdowns at inconvenient times.

"Bad things don't happen at convenient times," Cosby said. There are plans to conduct some drills at lunch and while students are changing classes.

There are more school resource officers than ever before in Etowah County, in the three school systems.

Sheriff Todd Entrekin, whose department hosted the class, said he believes schools are much safer because of SROs.

"Having a uniformed officer in that school, in itself, makes them much safer," he said. "Those officers are the first line of defense in the schools."

Kerri Williamson, training director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, taught one of the segments. She said the association often has people ask what an SRO is.

"It's not an armed guard, somebody to just stand by the door with a gun," she said.

SROs are sworn law enforcement officers who are properly selected and trained to work inside the schools and deal with potential violent situations within a school, while building relationships with the students. It's all part of making schools safer, Williamson said.

"If you don't make a connection quickly, you're not going to be as effective," she said.

Williamson said NASRO does not advocate hiring retired officers or private citizens, or arming non-law enforcement personnel or teachers.

She said in a dangerous situation or some type of violent episode, it is a teacher's responsibility to stay with his or her students and follow safety plans — not head out the door, gun in hand, toward the sound of gunfire.

"Then how are those children protected?" Williamson asked. "As a teacher, I don't want to have to make that decision."

She said the SROs' role is very important. They should be visible and also serve as a classroom and community resource.

While they're in schools to help make them safer, they sometimes will be involved in issues that require discipline. That disciplinary action should be left up to school officials.

Williamson said an effective SRO must have a genuine interest in working with youth and have an understanding of the school community.

"You don't need to have the same attitude that you would have if you were on patrol," she said.

Williamson said SROs and principals have a shared interest in maintaining a safe school environment. That's why Cosby said he is sold on the effectiveness of SROs. They are building relationships with students and teachers, and Cosby said, "It's a win-win for everybody."

Entrekin said while the presence of officers in schools is important, the issues behind violence also must be addressed. He said more mental health training is needed for teachers and law enforcement officers to help them recognize signs that can lead to violent incidents.

Every time there has been such an incident, law enforcement and school officials have learned something.

There was a SRO in the school at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999. But at that time, officers were taught to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT. Twelve students and a teacher were killed before the two gunmen killed themselves. It was one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, and it also changed the mindset of how law enforcement responds.

SROs, patrol officers and others who might respond immediately are now being taught basic tactical entry techniques in a school environment, according to Sgt. Ben Greene, an investigator at the Etowah County Sheriff's Office and a firearms instructor certified through the Department of Homeland Security.

"This is not SWAT training, but training basic tactical entry procedures to all officers," he said.

The training is the same for all officers and will be taught beginning Jan. 1 to officers attending any law enforcement academy.

Officers from all departments across Etowah County have been taught the procedures in the last several months. Greene said about 80 percent of the officers in the county already are trained, and the goal is to make that 100 percent.

"It works really well to address the immediate threat, to stop the shooting, so they all know what to do and do the same thing," Greene said.