‘We don’t want to leave anything to chance’: After Uvalde, Alabama schools weigh increases in resource officers

Alabama’s largest public school system is weighing the idea of ​​whether to expand the number of resource officers at their schools, and to make sure they are armed.

But with school starting Thursday, no definitive plan is imminent for the Mobile County School System, which employs 12 resource officers who are unarmed.

Related content:

The school system is confident in their overall security plan, but at least one school board member would like to add an armed resource officer to at least 70-75 of the district’s schools, a more than 500% increase.

“The goal is to put one in every school,” said board member Reginald Crenshaw.

A similar goal is being weighed in school systems throughout Alabama two months after the tragic breakdown of law enforcement during a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 children and two teachers were killed by a lone gunman.

Schools have also spent money this summer to add new lock systems, among other things, to their schools. Other school systems, such as Madison County Schools and Dothan City Schools, are installing new crisis alert systems that will enable school employees to get emergency help or activate a lockdown.

But it’s the addition of school resource officers (SROs) that appears to be the most popular push in large and small districts.

In Calera, the police chief has formed his own SRO unit, and is ramping up training.

“We’ve been dealing with this for too long to not get aggressive with it,” said Calera Police Chief David Hyche. “We have to do everything we can do.”

Other school systems are reaching out to systems that have long had SROs to find out how the program works. In Baldwin County — which vowed to add an SRO to all 46 campuses following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — officials are getting “numerous inquiries” about their program, which now consists of 50 SROs.

“I would like to see more SROs in our schools,” said Eric Mackey, the Alabama state superintendent. “The SRO builds a relationship with students. We want to build a trusting relationship between police officer and students, and we want the students to see that police officers are there to help.”

training and staffing

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey speaks to reporters after a budget hearing at the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday.

Mackey said a majority of Alabama’s schools do not have an SRO, which by definition is a carefully selected veteran law enforcement officer who is trained in school-based policing and crisis response.

SROs have arrest powers, and they work either full or part time, in a school setting. According to a November piece in Education Week, nearly all SROs (over 90%) are armed, and most carry other restraints like handcuffs.

In Mobile County, the debate has lasted for several years on whether to arm their officers.

Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said that the county has “talented” resource officers including two who used to work within his agency’s SWAT team.

He’s hopeful that the county will consider an expansion, and to ensure the officers receive NASRO training.

“It would be a tremendous public relations program for us where the kids grow up knowing a deputy sheriff and we’d be able to build up community involvement,” Cochran said.

An SRO is different from security guards or a police officer or sheriff deputy in that they undergo specific training for the job. NASRO offers basic 40-hour that includes content on teen brain development, the effects of trauma, cyber safety, special education law, and preventing violence in schools.

Maurice “Mo” Canady, executive director of NASRO, said the training is more frequent than that.

“You cannot go through 40 hours of training and claim you are done,” he said. “There are so many variables in an educational environment and so many changes with kids and adolescents.”

He said that SROs are not “brand new officers,” but are veteran law enforcement officers with at least “four to five years” of experience.

Little data is available on how many SROs there are in the US, let alone in Alabama. SROs are not required to register with any national database, nor are police agencies required to report how many their officers work as SROs, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), based in Hoover.

School systems are also not required to report how many SROs they use. According to Education Week, the percentage of schools with an SRO has steadily grown from 32% in 2005-2006, to 45% during the 2017-2018 school year.

Mackey said the state has fewer than 500 SROs covering Alabama’s approximately 1,500 schools, and that some school systems use an SRO to cover multiple schools. Other school systems, without SROs, will contract with local law enforcement agencies for additional police support.

staffing outlook

Canada said anticipates an increase in the next year. He said similar increases occurred in the 12-18 months after previous school schools – Parkland in 2018, and Sandy Hook elementary in 2012.

“In both of those, it was 12 to 18 months (after the massacres) that we felt the full impact (of additional SROs),” he said. “We’re seeing signs of the same type of reaction to the Uvalde massacre.”

Canada said the 32nd annual NASRO conference in Denver saw its second highest ever attendance, a sign that more school districts throughout the country are interested in adding SROs.

Interest was also notable during Alabama’s annual school resource officers conference in Gulf Shores, attended by 850 people.

“That’s a pretty strong number for a small state in terms of school resource officers and educators who were there and supporting the role of SROs,” Canada said.

But adding a large number of SROs at once, as Mobile County might be considering, is often difficult, he said. Notably, law enforcement agencies around the country are facing the “recruiting crisis” in the aftermath of the George Floyd shooting in 2020, and subsequent efforts of protesting police violence in urban cities.

“We you look at an SRO being the best of the best your department has to offer, and we are getting thin at the base of those departments in terms of candidates,” Canady said. “So that has a ripple down effect. The big ripple effect.”

controversy and concern

Civil rights activists, over the years, have criticized an increase in SROs for participating in a disproportionately high increase in Black student arrests. Following the Floyd tragedy, school districts in large cities like Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, and Oakland voted to terminate their contracts with local police agencies for SROs.

The Black Lives Matter coalition continues to call on abolishing SROs, saying that armed and uniformed police officers inside schools “only strengthens” a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Alabama Appleseed Center and Justice, in a 2019 report, argued that Law police without specialized training and who are good patrolling a school’s hallways, might end up causing more harm than harm.

The organization, utilizing federal data, illustrated how Black boys with disabilities were more likely than any other group to be referred to law enforcement at a school.

Appleseed also surveyed teachers and found that nearly one in four knew of an arrest that happened at their school that, in their view, could have been handled with regular school discipline.

Robert Clopton, president of the NAACP in Mobile County, said he has concerns about how security is being handled at the state’s largest district following Uvalde.

He said his concerns have to do with the safety of students whenever a fight on campus breaks out amid a rash of gun-related shootings that had occurred in Mobile over the past two years.

“We want to get some answers,” said Clopton, who is awaiting feedback from the superintendent’s office. “People are very concerned. They are more concerned now about safety than they have been before.”

Alabama expansion

Dancing Birmingham School Resource Officers

Birmingham police School Resource officers Alex Vildibill and Richard Mason of the Wobble at a ‘fun day’ for neighborhood kids.

Clopton said he was aware of the efforts in Baldwin County, where there has more active school shooter training.

Baldwin County proclaims itself as the only county school system in Alabama to have “trained, certified, armed police officers at every school, every day.”

The initial SRO expansion occurred in 2018, following the Parkland tragedy, and has continued into the coming school year.

Four years ago, the school board authorized a $1.5 million expenditure to add 16 SROs. The district’s annual SRO budget is now $2.6 million, according to school district figures.

“While they are always on the lookout for the most tragic types of events, including assault and terrorism, our SROs also serve other very important roles,” said Chasity Riddick, a school system spokeswoman. “They are on hand when parents going through domestic issues might bring their problems to campus. They are there if a member of the public or a parent comes to campus with a problem and becomes disorderly.”

She added, “Their presence on campus alongside our 30,000 students works to build a relationship between these children and law enforcement.”

Smaller school systems are pressing ahead with more SROs, as well as adding extra security measures to their buildings.

At Demopolis City Schools in Marengo County, a fourth full-time SRO will be added this year and will ensure that all four of the city’s schools have a full-time officer. The school system, with an enrollment of slightly more than 2,100 students, also got a grant to upgrade doors, locks and lockdown capabilities at each school building.

Superintendent Tony Willis said the SROs are NASRO-trained, adding that school officials have the benefit of being in a small town where they are in “constant communication with the police chief and their supervisor so we can always make sure they are doing not only what they are trained to do but meeting the needs of our specific schools and community.”

In Elmore County Schools in Wetumpka, the number of officers on campus has doubled from seven last year to 14 for the coming school year, according to Superintendent Richard Dennis.

Calera’s approach

Calera Police Chief David Hyche

David Hyche, who retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives after 31 years, was named Calera’s police chief in 2010. (Contributed)

In Calera, which is part of the Shelby County School System, the local police department recently oversaw the creation of an SRO unit consisting of four part-time and three full-time SROs, along with a sergeant.

Last year, there were only two full-time SROs covering the city’s four schools.

“This is an enormous increase for us,” said Hyche, the city’s police chief. “Most of the money is coming from our budget, and we haven’t had an increase in our budget. We’re having to pay for it out of our existing budget, but this is something we have to do to protect our kids.”

Further complicating staffing is that his department is down seven officers.

“If we have to sacrifice in other areas, we will,” Hyche said. “I have to do everything possible. I don’t want to have to defend that we didn’t do this or that to save money if, heaven help us, something happens to our schools.”

The agency is also spending money to purchase entry tools so that law enforcement officers have the tools to get inside a school building. Training is part of what Calera officers, like agencies elsewhere in Alabama, are going though, and will continue undertaking as the school year approaches.

Hyche said the Uvalde tragedy was “stomach churning” and mishandled. He said his agency’s SROs – like SROs trained by NASRO – are trained to move directly to the threat as quickly as possible.

“We don’t want to leave anything to chance,” Hyche said.

He said that all officers will be required to make random visits to a school daily.

“We have four schools and 15 to 20 people here on staff, and I’m requiring every one of them visit a school every day,” Hyche said. “If someone plans to do harm in a school, they won’t know if they will be walking in on one officer or 11.”

An SRO, he said, will always be on campus.

“I love the idea that our citizens know that our officers are training all summer long to make sure their kids are safe,” said Hyche. “We’re not sugar coating this … it’s terrible. But if it’s my kids, I would want to know that (the police) are prepared to go through that door rapidly and we are prepared to stop it.”

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: