Steps to Bridge the Gaps between Cops and Communities

Constant media scrutiny has served to highlight the rift between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they protect and serve.  Since schools have the power to influence and guide social change, many organizations and stakeholders are beginning to examine the role of law enforcement officers in schools and their potential to improve relationships between police and communities.   St. Louis County School Resource Officer Ronald Cockrell in Beyond the Badge: Profile of a School Resource Officer emphasized, “It has to be inside our heart that you want to make a difference in your community.” Cockrell works towards bridging the gap between students and police officers amidst the strained relationship between law enforcement and the community of Ferguson, MO.  The video focuses on Cockrell’s efforts to build relationships with students and teachers, listen to students talk about fear of the police in a school town hall, mentor young people on how to negotiate conflicts, and work with the school faculty to respond and support a student whose father is murdered.

While the video examines Cockrell’s role in helping heal the shattered community of Ferguson, it highlights the widely recognized triad model of  school based policing which includes (a) enforcement, (b) education, and (c) mentoring (The Roles of School-Based Law Enforcement Officers and How These Roles Are Established:  A Qualitative Study). These duties are simultaneously addressed through typical police activities such as enforcing laws and patrolling assigned areas, capitalizing on teachable moments with students and teaching criminal justice related topics, and providing advice, guidance, and serving as a positive role model.

There is some disagreement among civil rights groups as to whether or not school police officers are improving relationships, like Officer Cockrell in Ferguson, or whether they contribute to the “school-to-prison” pipeline:  policies and social practices believed to push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  It is true that our most at-risk students often have the most negative encounters with teachers and law enforcement, so we must work to value school police officers for more than their enforcement role and work to cultivate their positive position in our school culture and community.

Having worked for nearly a decade preparing future teachers, my experience, as well as documented research, supports the notion that you have to have a passion for kids and not just the subject you want to teach.  The same philosophy applies to school based law enforcement and school resource officers.  Years of classroom instruction taught me that it does not matter what teaching and learning theories you subscribe to—you must form a connection with a student before learning can occur.  Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers echoed that sentiment when he stated the ultimate goal for school police officers is “…to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth. So what we are talking about at the end of the day is building relationships.”

While mainstream media does everything possible to highlight negative police-community relationships, a groundswell of activism is taking place across the country to bring together civic stakeholders to build better relationships between police and the communities they serve.  Maritza Ramos, the widow of slain NYPD officer Rafael Ramos, is launching The Detective Rafael Ramos Foundation in her husband’s honor with this mission in mind.  The Blue Alert Foundation is proud to be partnering with a yet to be announced “Police Safety Initiative” with the goal of bringing together community leaders, local governments, and influencers to find solutions for increased protection of police officers and those they serve with fair, just, and transparent practices.  As 2016 is ushered in, I encourage everyone to consider how they can contribute to positive relationships with law enforcement in their communities and schools. is a personal weblog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer.

A Call to Action: “Lock Down” is No Longer Enough

Imagine the first terrifying moments of a deadly threat incident on a school campus:  confusion and panic replace the calm, orderliness of an ordinary school day.  Students and faculty may hear a hail of gunfire, terrified screams, or empty silence.  Virtually every school in the United States responds the same way to this situation:  lock down, shelter-in-place, and hope the shooter does not find you.

An active shooter at a school is one of the most horrifying realities that modern society faces.  Many lives are at risk in a contained, defenseless space, and a deadly threat incident is unpredictable and advances quickly.  For these reasons, the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations, a multi-agency document created by the U.S. Department of Education, FEMA, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, states that “…individuals must be prepared to deal with an active shooter situation before law enforcement officers arrive on scene” (p. 57).  In the first crucial minutes of a deadly threat incident on a school campus, teachers are the first responders.

According to the National Latino Law Enforcement Organization in Enhancing Teachers’ Response to Active Threats, we think of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, and not teachers as first responders.  The cold reality however is that deadly incidents in schools are often over before the police can respond.  Training students, teachers, and staff to respond in an emergency will increase their odds of survival.

For almost twenty years I taught in public schools and at a large university that prepares future teachers; I know of no pre-service or extensive in-service training that shows teachers how to think tactically and respond appropriately to deadly situations on campus.  Let that sink in for a moment.  We expect schools to be safe havens for our children, but most teachers have no training in how to respond to an emergency, let alone what do if there is an active shooter.  As parents, we should be ashamed that we have not demanded more in terms of our children’s safety.

There are of course exceptions.  The ALICE Training Institute proposes training that goes beyond the traditional lock down and includes proactive responses to threats like active resistance—fighting back with objects of opportunity such as desks, chairs, and books, as well as barricading and evacuating. Both the ALICE Training Institute and the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations recommend steps beyond the traditional lock down and shelter-in-place response to an active shooter, and a school district that fails to provide defense strategies in addition to the lock down procedure are not meeting federal guidelines for school safety.

There should be a multi-pronged approach to school safety.  Law enforcement and schools working/training together prior to an incident can increase interoperability during a deadly threat incident.  Experts also call for stronger lines of communication between teachers and law enforcement during an attack on a campus.  One method for better communication between teachers and law enforcement is through the COPsync911 system.  School staff can activate COPsync911 from a computer or smart device.  The system sends an immediate and silent alert to other staff, officers in their patrol cars, and the 9-1-1 dispatch center.  All participants can communicate in a crisis communication portal as the situation unfolds, helping teachers become the initial first responders.  Officers are also notified faster than traditional 9-1-1, have immediate access to a mapped location of the school, as well as a diagram of the school’s interior.

Parents, schools, and teachers do not want to think about worst-case scenarios, but we simply must in order to protect our children.  Law enforcement is responsible for the safety of our communities, but as members of a community, we are responsible for holding our schools accountable to federal safety recommendations.  A lock down is no longer an appropriate response to an active shooter, and teachers need the tools and training to become the initial first responders in a school crisis.

These are my own opinions and not those of my employer.