News: CJ Exclusives

Panelists agree more SROs needed but differ on certification

CARY — Panelists at a Juvenile Justice Workshop say school resource officers are valuable in protecting students and faculty, but more rigorous and realistic training is needed.

The panel was part of an all-day symposium featuring discussions on the juvenile justice system, student mental health, and school-based intervention strategies. North Carolina’s judicial branch and the Department of Public Safety sponsored the symposium Wednesday, April 25, in Cary Town Hall.

Ten panelists discussed what elements of the SRO position need strengthened and whether to require mandatory certification.

Mike Anderson, community development specialist at the N.C. Center for Safer Schools, said the mindset of SROs needs to change from a job one has to do to a job one wants to do.

“It takes a special person to be locked in a school with a lot of kids,” Anderson. “We need to start picking apart and placing the correct officer [in schools].”

Kimberly Robb, president of N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said SROs need to feel valued and not seen as inferior to police officers. Eric Zogry, a N.C. juvenile defender, agreed with Robb and said the SRO job should be viewed as a specialization.

Guilford County Sheriff B.J. Barnes, who serves on the Governor’s Crime Commission, said standardization for SROs is needed, as well as a clear understanding of the job.

“We don’t need a John Wayne,” Barnes said. “We test our folks to make sure they have the right psychological makeup to deal with these kids. … Our SROs need to be responsible and take into account that they are dealing with our future.”

It’s important, Barnes said, for SROs to know the position isn’t a dead-end job, but instead treat it like a promotion.

Panelists agreed school officials need to understand the extent of an SRO’s responsibilities. Anderson said SROs are in schools to enforce state laws, but not school policies. Insubordination isn’t equal to disorderly conduct. An SRO should be called if a student assaults a teacher but not if the student is belligerent.

Panelists disagreed on whether SRO certification should be mandatory.

“I am a firm believer in certification,” Anderson said. “I tell sheriffs and chiefs all the time, if you want to make the news the bad way, put the wrong person in the school without the correct training.”

The NC Justice Academy offers a SRO certification program totaling 400 course hours. SROs can take a basic training course covering 40 course hours or an advanced training course requiring an additional 40 hours. Anderson said a 2018 SRO census shows at least 85 percent of SRO surveyed completed basic training.

Trevor Allen, director of the N.C. Justice Academy, said the center isn’t now offering the advanced training, which is being revamped. The new advanced training deals with more tactical aspects of the job.

Benjamin Matthews, chief school operations officer at the Department of Public Instruction, said SROs need specific training on dealing with young people to help them understand a student’s mindset.

Barnes had some concerns about how mandatory certification would affect smaller departments.

“I am a firm believer in training. It is a valuable tool, but I don’t want to see it stifle the ability to get SROs in schools,” Barnes said. “We only have so many officers and so many hours to spare.”