Whether you have been “volun-told” or have made the decision to become an SRO, there are several things you should know before you walk into that school on your first day of school.
If you haven’t been an SRO, no matter what classes you’ve attended, no matter what your police or educational background, no matter how many kids you have at home, this is an experience-based assignment. While you may have kids, you don’t have these kids! And they are as diverse as you can imagine. Your first day may be greeted by wary student looks and gazes of consternation. Smile and push forward. Your challenge is to make fans out of these folks – and now more than ever, we need to be our own best Public Relations firm. Stick out your hand and introduce yourself. The below paragraphs could each become their own article, but for now, consider them an Intro to SRO 101 syllabus, for quick reference.
Relationships are the key in your first year and, dare I say, the entire assignment. In a post-Marjory Stoneman Douglas world, many educators and administrators are pleased to have a law enforcement officer in their midst and the deterrent that the presence brings along. In some instances, you may encounter push-back. It is in your best agency’s-goal-oriented interest to make in-roads, find common ground and sell yourself and the service you bring to the equation. Some principals want hard-ass cops to prowl the halls, ready to pounce on any infraction that may be encountered – a uniformed disciplinarian. Others, and particularly the elementary and middle school principals, want you to be congenial, visible and accessible to the students and the public alike. Your marked car is the prominent outside deterrent to trouble. Your presence and involvement inside the school is what works to keep threats from within from occurring. Your goals will include winning the hearts and minds of the student body and make them understand police don’t all have an us vs. them mindset. We aren’t anti-fun, we are pro-safety. The pro-fun part will push you outside your comfort zone.
Your Principal and your administrators must be fans of you and your mission. You must work on these relationships daily. You need to work on your relationships with guidance counselors, behavioral specialists, school psychologists and security specialists regularly. Influencers, coaches, etc., these are your guides to the methods to reach these students and begin the mentoring relationship with your students. Educators represent the most influential person in the student’s school life and in many cases are surrogate parents for students who have no real love or guidance at home. You need to win them over. You need to make inroads with your IT person, your school building supervisor and maintenance and custodial staff. You need to be ready to fill in gaps and maintain a professional demeanor even when you think your above what’s being asked while never compromising your commitment to the safety and security of the campus and the people who work and visit the school you’ve committed yourself to protecting. Keep this in mind- these are educated people. Most have advanced degrees and don’t see or haven’t seen the world in all its ugliness like you have. Don’t scare them off.
Your Students need your interaction daily, frequently, regularly. There are not enough adverbs to convey this point. You are the sheepdog. Some will want to be sheepdogs years from now and will remember your interactions with them. You will not spend a great deal of time in your office, if you have one. You will be in trouble spots, congregation areas, morning parent drop off, bus drop off and pick up, admin offices, lunchrooms, dealing with behavioral issues, chasing down Special Education students, talking to your state equivalent of Department of Children and Families, evaluating students for involuntary mental health commitments, meeting parents who care for their children less than you do, performing threat assessments, secure building checks, pulling on doors and checking locks, ensuring single access points are monitored, making sure cameras are optimized for not only watching the student body but for intruders and threats, educating students how to stay out of trouble and be safe, being present in the lunch room, recess, physical education classes, all while working on the above relationships. If you are beginning to envision a one-armed juggler with a persistent itch, you are getting the picture. Most SRO’s I know have pedometers and keep track of the steps they accumulate daily. Between twelve and sixteen thousand is a normal day.
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Your Teachings – DARE, GATE, or whatever curriculum your agency or school district has agreed upon. Many students do not have role models for manners or polite interaction. Having an instructor background is very helpful. If you have taught a room full of cops, no crowd will seem daunting. Hopefully you have sought this assignment and have prepared yourself with not only your warrior tactics and mindset but also honed your communication skills. On patrol, one shifts gears constantly. As an SRO, you may go from dealing with horrid details of a child’s sexual assault victimization, then go into a crowded lunch room where students want to give you high fives, fist bumps and hugs and won’t understand the distant look on your face. Each student interaction is important.
Your Goals need to be flexible and you need to be institutionally aware. Sure, you want 100% buy in and a friendly environment all the time. That is not always going to happen, and it may take time to get things accomplished. In my small case, I saw right away the need for a piece of equipment that would cause some stir. I did some research, talked to some folks first. I talked it over with my principal, who talked it over with his people who said they weren’t sure, but I had convinced my principal of the need. I had talked it over with my chain of command and they were on board when the school district got on board. I touched it a few times during the school year to keep the topic alive. When summer came, my chain came to me and said, “Hey what about the piece of equipment?” Around the same time, my principal came along and said we had approval. Lesson? You have two monolithic entities to negotiate. Take your time, come correct, the answer “not now” isn’t the same as no.
The Rewards are so worth it. In editing my own article, I can see how it may seem like I’m talking you out of the assignment. I’m not. Many officers see a day time schedule and some autonomy. SRO’s see a set schedule where they cannot take off unless the school is off and after school events that take up afternoon and evening hours and ensuring the bridges you’ve built over the school year stay strong over the summer. They see a campus that needs protecting and school staff to be cajoled into seeing your attention to detail as a strength when you remind them again about not propping doors open during school hours or leaving gates unlocked for their convenience.
But it is all worth it. The most treasured items I have from this 21-year and counting career are written in crayon and look like they were drawn by K through 5 students and simply say, “Thank you for protecting us.” The parental interaction that ends with, “I’m so glad you’re here in my child’s school.” The student who stops you and says, “I don’t know what to do,” or says they mean themselves harm. The Special Education students who were afraid of uniforms the first day they saw you and in many cases are non-verbal, now hug or high-five you with a big grin.
Officer Joseph Zalenski is currently assigned as an SRO in Cape Coral, Florida. He entered the Philadelphia Police Academy Class 322 in 1997 and joined the Cape Coral Police Department in 2005, starting his 22nd year in Law Enforcement this October. He has served in Patrol as an FTO, Training Unit, Bike Unit, Honor Guard and now the SRO Unit. He has held instructor level certifications in Firearms through the NRA and CJSTC. He has held instructor level certifications in less-than-lethal Use of Force implements, including Taser, Monadnock, ASP, Pepperball and others.. Officer Zalenski is passionate about campus safety and is frequently caught in the classroom with “his” kids teaching them or spending time with them at recess, PE or the cafeteria.. He recently attended FASRO 2019 and Active Shooter Instructor level courses. When not working, he spends time with his family, wood working and playing with his rescued Dogs Argentino, Shamus.
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