Reducing school violence is a national imperative. Frequently school officials and police officials have different perceptions of the role of law enforcement in public education. Policing in an educational setting truly is a unique challenge. Tennessee has historically done a good job ensuring the safety and security of school employees and students. However, we continue to have incidents. The key is to keeps keep vigilant.
There is a consistent threat to students, faculty, and staff, in the form of assault, battery, sex crimes, possession of drugs and weapons, and stealing. They are also underreported and happen much more frequently than armed intrusions or safety threats. When it involves violent crimes and safety threats it is time for law enforcement to be involved. The Federal Commission on School Safety Report states that “Homicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and nationwide, 15.7 percent of students carried a weapon (e.g., gun, knife, or club) on at least one day in the past month.”
Educators have worried about the education that School Resource Officers have received concerning school law. They are concerned about issues like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and special education. It is something of which we must be aware. On the other hand, law enforcement is worried about educators understanding basic criminal statutes and reporting requirements. This is also a valid issue of concern. We need better communication. According to the 2022 Safe Schools Report: Out of 1876 schools, only 1301 had an SRO. Some schools only have one SRO that floats to several schools and is not full-time at one school. Those numbers are expected to be updated by the state this month.
There has been a gradual change across the state from having School Resource Officers (SROs) who are police officers to districts utilizing School Safety Officers (SSOs) who are district employees. The public has not paid attention to this shift. It has created concern for me, as I worry about the safety of both students and teachers. I interact with teachers regularly that have been assaulted in the classroom. Parents in Hamilton County, Tennessee are concerned about legislation that would let SSOs restrain special education students.
There is not a single, “One-size-fits-all,” plan for safety that can be utilized in every school across the state. When dangerous behavior or issues develop in a public setting, such as a classroom or school, law enforcement is probably better equipped to handle the situation, especially in dealing with confrontational and hostile people. In the State of the State, Professional Educators of Tennessee appreciated Governor Lee in addressing school safety and security. He also plans to expand Homeland Security’s presence in each county in Tennessee.
A weakness in the plan, from my perspective, is the verbiage moving away from SROs to security guards or SSOs. This needs to be fully vetted before becoming law. The logic the state will attempt to make is a shortage of law enforcement officers or an unwillingness of local communities to pay for those officers. Radio Host Jason Rantz wrote, “as the debate over police in school rages, some of the decision-makers don't appear to know what SROs even do.”
The first part of the argument is understandable, the second part should be rejected. School safety is a community responsibility. School safety isn’t one person’s obligation, it takes a commitment from everyone. Governor Lee’s plan identifies that need. If there is a police department or Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee that does not want to see vulnerable children and school employees safe, my guess is that department would lose community support instantly. Public education and law enforcement agencies are both funded by the public. Law enforcement is normally better equipped than an untrained educator to oversee the safety and security of schools. The cost should be manageable. If we have moved away from SROs due to a shortage of available law enforcement officers, that too should concern all.
We saw the results of the police shortage on display in Memphis, where officers handcuffed and viciously beat Tyre Nichols earlier this year. Memphis had decreased standards desperately trying to fill hundreds of positions. This placed inexperienced and unqualified officers on the streets. Alvin Davis, who oversaw recruiting for the Memphis Police told the Associated Press, “They would allow just pretty much anybody to be a police officer because they just want these numbers. Davis quit in frustration in 2022.
We are grateful that the Lee Administration has made school security a priority. Nevertheless, replacing an SRO with a law enforcement background with an SSO who has met minimal requirements is a step backward. Having an on-site law enforcement officer who could provide an immediate response to any school-related emergency could be the difference between life and death, with zero wait time. The role of law enforcement in education needs greater consideration if safety is being addressed.
JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee