I have 17 years of experience as a police officer in a town of about 60,000 people. I am also in my 8th year as a School Resource Officer (SRO) in our school district serving at an alternative school. Transitioning from a street cop to an SRO involves developing new skill sets, modifying some and enhancing others. It has been a good assignment; I have learned a great deal from it.

The transition from street cop to SRO wasn’t easy. The same type of kids I used to deal with on the street, I now have to deal within a school setting. Now, I had to become a resource to students while learning to work with teachers in an academic environment.

I had to learn to teach street kids, some of whom were not interested in an education. They certainly did not consider the police their friends. I had to learn how to be something other than a street cop; I had to change my mindset. This transition required me to relax while still practicing good officer safety using different means. Also, these kids needed to see that I actually cared about them, no matter how hard they made it.

I have taken two SRO training classes. While they were a good place to start, they could not replace experience and an open mind. A successful SRO’s toolbox includes an open mind coupled with a desire to help kids.

I found it rewarding to know and understand my students in a setting other than the street.  I see these kids in a different light. Before I became a SRO, anyone I saw wearing gang clothing was a thug to me.

Now I see them differently. Yes, some are gang members with very little drive for an education. However, many act or dress a certain way just to survive on the streets. They have difficulty with school, but these kids will do better when treated with respect by adults… especially me. In most cases, I can calm a student down by pulling him aside and talking to him in a respectful manner.   I am as respectful as they allow me to be.

Sometimes I have to arrest them. Even then I do my best to treat them with respect. Street kids are big on respect. It’s a large part of the gang culture.  This is one of the more important things I have learned in my time as an SRO.

Opportunities for me to show them respect often come when there is trouble. At times, I can pull them aside and quietly talk to them, explaining better ways to handle the problem. I also try to show respect during an arrest. Unless I just can’t avoid it, I won’t walk an in-custody student down a hallway between classes. It’s no one else’s business. I try to avoid unnecessary embarrassment.

Despite my attempts to show respect to my students whenever possible, they know that I will do my job as an LEO. I will do what is required in the performance of law enforcement duties. My kids know this. They have seen me have to act in the line of duty. A few years spent together has helped us get to know one another. My kids have learned that while I care about them, I am still a required to do my job.

Several years back we had a kid come to our school who following the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was a typical street kid. A year or so after his arrival, I arrested him for burglary. He didn’t care. His mother didn’t know what to do with him.

I had the privilege of sitting and talking with him in my office on many occasions. He would tell me about his experiences in the Super Dome in New Orleans during Katrina. Can you imagine the overwhelming effect such a terrible experience might have on a young person?

He spoke to my church youth group twice. When I attended one of his speeches, he indicated to the group that I was the cop who arrested me for burglary. He said it with a smile and also indicated that somehow I had been a positive influence in his life.

During the time he was with us, he changed. Due to the influence of caring teachers and a principal who not only knows how to run an alternative school, but also genuinely cares about his students, he graduated with honors. He spoke at graduation and received a college scholarship. He’s still in college. I am motivated as a SRO when I see students like this young man and the positive changes he has made in life.

I work the streets a little differently now when not in school. It’s somewhat like a detective that has come back to the streets. I have a new set of skills which will help me problem solve at a street level.

I have started programs and other educational lessons to expose these kids to things that they normally would not experience. Truthfully, I have not re-invented any wheels. I have just adapted programs and ideas to meet the needs of an alternative school.

I started by teaching juvenile law in the classroom. This class was complimented with the Fatal Vision program. I get golf cart and lots of orange street cones from the city’s street department. I haul all of this to the school and set up a driving course. The students drive with special goggles and I hold on for dear life. They had fun. Even some of the “hard core” kids opened up a little.

I have learned about the educational process required for these kids. It is very different from a “traditional” educational setting. Teachers must be creative in how they teach them. Most of our kids are not auditory learners. They tend to be kinesthetic learners who have to interact. This can create a much different learning environment than traditional students experience. Simple lectures will not be nearly as effective as a hands-on class. Even subjects like math and history must be taught in a creative and hands-on manner to be effective.  Most alternative education teachers are highly-creative, dedicated professionals who truly care about their students. If they don’t, they won’t last long.

My passion is school security and safety. Most American schools are very soft targets for domestic and foreign terrorists. After having attended many seminars about this issue, I realize that the failure of school district administrators to see or educate themselves about this threat is a major problem. It’s a real barrier.

This frustrates me. I understand that district administrators are busy leaving no child behind. But in doing so, are we spending an appropriate amount of time and resources on protecting students while they are with us? In many cases, administrators are stuck back in the times when you didn’t need to lock your doors. Sadly, we no longer live in those times. Those of us in the military and law enforcement better understand the threat.

In order for us to protect our children, administrators have to be “sold” on the need to address student safety. We must become student safety salespeople. To do this, we need to understand what drives our administrators, their pressures and responsibilities, in order to work with them effectively. We will have to sell them the mindset that protecting student safety is an investment and not an expense.

As the United States pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign terrorists will continue to plot attacks and may carry them out here. I believe that this is coming. Not if, but when. If we are not ready, this activity will cripple our nation.

Can we get ready to respond to a terrorist attack on our schools? As a LEO, I wonder if the American public in general and law enforcement specifically, can handle the actions necessary to end a terror incident. Could something like the Chechen separatist terror incident in Beslan, Russia where over 700 children were held hostage and 380 people were killed, occur in the U.S?  I believe it is only a matter of time.   Experts predict that America could be next.

If American LEOs aren’t trained, equipped and in every other way prepared, we will not be ready for the battle to come. And LEOs know that we do not prepare for the best. We prepare and train for the worst and hope for the best.

I have covered a lot here. The most crucial common denominator is the first responder. If you are an SRO, you will own the fight, at least for a while. If you are an SRO or another first responder, lives will depend on your immediate actions. Do you have time to wait for back up? Can you control your emotions when kids are in danger and dying? Do you know your schools in your jurisdiction? When’s the last time you toured them with a cop’s eye? If you are in uniform patrol, do you work with your SROs? Are you trained? Are you ready? The time to consider these questions is now.

Keith Phifer is a School Resource Officer in North Little Rock, Arkansas.He is an Army veteran with a B.S.in Economics and Finance and a minor in Management. He is a certified instructor in several areas, including DARE. His passion is keeping students safe and being proactive to eliminate threats. He is a husband and father, serves in his church, and loves the outdoors. He volunteers for the Special Olympics and with the Boy Scouts. Reach Keith at [email protected]