In reaction to their own nationally highlighted incident in 2015, Richland County (SC) Sheriff Office (RCSO) School Resource Officer (SRO) program sought to revise their roles, activities, and approaches to working with youth in the county’s schools.
Public opinion is divided about what role school police and security officers should play for today’s youth and what impact they should seek to create. For the last 70 years, police and security officers in schools have tried to simultaneously fill the conflicting roles of mentor, counselor, and law enforcer.
Long-term impacts from mass incarceration, intergenerational violence, and disadvantages in communities have caused new crises such as suicide, violence, and strained mental health in students. Police and security officers’ close proximity to youths dealing with these challenges has expanded their role into crisis intervention and emergency management. This development has stressed the need for counselors and social work approaches in schools.
Officers attempting to balance these roles has led to both successes (e.g., higher school engagement and graduation achievement) and failures (e.g., uses of force against youth, criminalization of trauma, and crisis behavior).
School police and security officers are enlisted to protect and mentor individuals in the school environment, which means their priorities are no longer about arrests and criminal behavior. The inclusion of social determinants and youth behavior data can help an agency understand both individual and community needs.
Today, educators and school safety programs are focused on trauma-informed practices and returning to restorative and rehabilitative approaches to support youth development.
For Richland County, evaluating activities, resources, and processes to ensure that the focus was on positive youth development became a priority. Implementing new approaches to youth interactions resulted in a three-year project intended to shift training, partnerships, and performance management measures for their SRO program.
IDEA Analytics guided RCSO SROs through data collection and reporting processes which measured their activities, assessed officers’ roles, and identified concerns among students. We leveraged performance-based management principles to develop a data collection plan that identified how interactions between SROs and students occurred, the content and purpose of these interactions, and their outcomes.
The initial evaluation gave IDEA Analytics the opportunity to engage with RSCO SROs and school personnel in individual interviews and focus groups to achieve the goals of developing trauma-informed responses to youth behavior and addressing crime and disorder in schools. Storyboards of interaction scenarios depicted how and why disturbances in the schools occurred, how stakeholders engaged during responses and interactions with students, what outcomes were available for SROs, and discussed parents and other resources.
Because SROs were dealing with such a wide range of issues, which varied by school level, it was important to create a profile of program activities that would allow leadership to establish professional development sessions that would support SRO’s work.
IDEA Analytics supported the implementation of a real-time data collection solution, which considered qualitative and quantitative analysis for the 2017-18 school year. The evaluation of these interactions enabled the development of a program-wide profile.
Robust evaluation of SRO activities
Agile technology implementation with performance measures for priorities
Storyboarding and scenario analysis of roles were used to open dialogue and facilitate stakeholder communications
Students emotional outbursts were often tied to incidents of physical and sexual abuse, family instability, homelessness, and anxiety about school.
Interactions between students and officers varied from general greetings and encouragement for tests to addressing depression or anxiety, responding to fights, and investigating criminal offenses. Analysis for the first six months of the school year indicated that many officers often dealt with angry and emotional outbursts from students, as well as issues of property loss or theft, fights, and the presence of weapons.
Details from interviews and interaction forms also emphasized issues such as hunger and homelessness, physical and sexual child abuse, and substance abuse among many students. The details and persistence of these issues continued with each monthly analysis of interactions.
Because 55% of interactions were Counselor incidents, the RCSO SRO program focused training and professional development on both conflict mediation and resolution and trauma-informed responses.
Clashing cultures among stakeholders often hinders multi-system progress. Dedicated leadership, supporting data, and youth-focused solutions can ease the stress of change. For school police and security officers, understanding that there are different needs at each school level and being aware of the changes in youth development stages can help develop a trauma-sensitive approach to responding to situations in schools.
New perspectives about SRO activities and role within the schools.
Further understanding by staff about shifts of student behavior throughout the year.
Officers could focus on developing responses to the youth risks related to self, family, and community that were previously unnoticed or misunderstood.
New conversations with school stakeholders regarding interactions and services to support youth.
Defining officers’ roles in schools is a challenge because of our constantly shifting culture and the individual stressors every student faces. To create a model for every officer to follow which would maximize the chances of a favorable outcome and minimize risk, IDEA provided solutions for school personnel and SROs that were founded in qualitative and quantitative analysis. By focusing on developing officers professionally so that they could interact constructively with students, IDEA equipped Richland County’s SROs with the tools necessary to positively transform every unique situation.
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