WEB EXTRA Municipal & Governmental Law: Understanding the Role of a School Resource Officer
By: Rachel Hawkinson
More NH School Districts Are Considering Adding SROs
Crime on school campuses is an issue of concern in many communities in New Hampshire and throughout the United States.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that a majority of schools deal with crimes occurring on campus. In the 2009-2010 academic year (the most recent statistics available from NCES), 73.8 percent of public schools in the United States experienced occurrences of violent incidents, including rape, sexual battery, physical attacks, and robbery; 44.1 percent reported incidents of theft; and 68.1 percent reported incidents of other crimes, such as illegal firearm possession, distribution of drugs, and vandalism. In 2011, police officers across the nation arrested 307,864 persons under the age of 15, according to NCES. During that same year, police officers arrested 5,299 juveniles in New Hampshire.
To enhance safety and security on campus, some school districts contract with municipal police departments to provide a School Resource Officer (SRO). An SRO is a sworn law enforcement officer assigned to a school or school district to address on-campus crime, respond to off-campus reports of crimes involving students, investigate suspected criminal activity at or near schools, and respond to emergencies.
According to the latest report provided by the New Hampshire Department of Education, fewer than 40 percent of New Hampshire schools currently have a police officer on campus. However, this number may be on the rise.
This year, several New Hampshire school districts considered engaging an SRO. School districts (or non-public schools) may access the services of an SRO by negotiating an agreement with a local police or Sheriff’s department. This process usually involves coordination between a school board, school administrators, municipal government officials, and Chief of Police. The relationship between the school district, SRO, and police department should be set forth in a detailed written agreement spelling out which entity will provide funding for the SRO position, the SRO’s qualifications and training, and how the school district, police department, and SRO will coordinate scheduling, attendance, and supervision of the SRO. The agreement should clearly state the duties the school wishes the SRO to perform. For example, in addition to providing security and conducting law enforcement activities, an SRO may deliver curricular programming, manage traffic congestion, or coordinate with area agencies on behalf of troubled students.
School districts may pay the police department for the SRO’s salary and benefits, but this does not make the SRO a school employee. SROs typically remain employees of the police department and are subject to the department’s regulations and chain of command, not those of the school in which they work. They are also subject to the employment contracts and often collective bargaining agreements enforced by labor unions separate from school employees’ associations. The law enforcement agency typically retains the authority to hire, fire, assign, evaluate, and train the SRO according to police department policies and standards. If school officials wish to have input into the SRO’s selection, performance evaluation, or work schedule, they should incorporate these expectations into the agreement negotiated with the police department. If school officials want the SRO to participate in meetings, monitor athletic events, or perform other duties outside the normal school day, they must be mindful to coordinate with the department to handle associated overtime pay.
Communication between school employees and SROs can result in timely, effective safety interventions. However, an SRO should engage in enforcement activities with regard to criminal matters only, not violations of school policy. Student discipline matters sometimes overlap with criminal matters (e.g. possession of illegal drugs may violate both school policy and the law), but when SROs and school employees cooperate in monitoring student conduct, each should be mindful of his or her professional role.
School employees and SROs are subject to different legal standards controlling activities such as student searches, investigations, and other matters affecting student privacy. The New Hampshire Supreme Court explained in State v. Heirtzler that school officials are responsible for “administration and discipline within the school and must regularly conduct inquiries concerning both violations of schools rules and violations of the law.” However, the Court ruled that these administrative duties “do not include enforcing the law or investigating criminal matters.” Because their role is to “foster a safe and healthy educational environment,” they are afforded greater flexibility to “swiftly resolve potential problems” affecting the school.
This means that when acting within the scope of their administrative authority, school officials need not implement the same constitutional safeguards that a police officer does when investigating a criminal matter. However, students do not “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” as the US Supreme Court noted in the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. While school officials and SROs can work closely together to improve school security and foster a safe environment for learning, they should keep in mind their distinct roles as educators and law enforcement officers.
Rachel Hawkinson is an attorney at Rath, Young and Pignatelli PC in Concord.