For Some Districts, School Resource Officers Are Hard To Come By

Feb 11, 2019

In the year since Jack Sawyer was arrested for allegedly plotting to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School, improving school security has been a statewide priority. 

Many believe school resource officers play an important role - patrolling the hallways and forming relationships with students.

But some school districts are having trouble finding them.

For example, the school resource officer who worked for years at Otter Valley Union High School retired last June. That officer had been a member of the Brandon Police Department.

"It is very difficult to find a school resource officer right now." - Jeanne Collins, Superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union

Jeanne Collins, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said they haven’t been able to find a replacement.

“It is very difficult to find a school resource officer right now,” Collins said. “The Brandon police is working frantically and they’re just difficult to find.”

In Vermont, school resource officers are typically members of a local police or county sheriff’s department. School districts contract with those agencies to pay for police services on school grounds.

What those services look like exactly depends on what the school wants.

Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, said that in addition to being cops, SROs are informal counselors and educators who build relationships with students and teach them about the law. 

But they come to work armed, and Hardy says they have to be ready to act. “I worked inside the school for 20 years," Handy said. "And every day when I woke up and put on my duty belt I thought, 'This could be the day when someone comes into my school and tries to do harm to the students that I care for and that I protect.'"

"Every day when I woke up and put on my duty belt I thought, this could be the day when someone comes into my school and tries to do harm to the students that I care for and that I protect." - Mac Harding, National Association of School Resource Officers

It’s a difficult job, which is why he said many communities nationwide  are having difficulty finding SROs.

Security experts in Vermont say there are approximately 400 public, private and independent schools. Only about 35 to 40 full-time school resource officers are working in them.

“In Rutland County right now I could use three more school resource officers, one for Otter Valley, one for West Rutland and one for Proctor," Rutland County Sheriff Stephen Benard said.

“To mitigate that a bit," explained Benard, "we’ve entered into an agreement with one district to cover Poultney High School three days a week, West Rutland one day a week, and Proctor school one day a week.”

Part of the problem is that many police departments in Vermont and nationwide say they are understaffed.

On the Vermont State Police Academy website, there are more than 50 job postings for officers across the state.

Benard said that after taking after aptitude and required polygraph tests, only about 20 percent of candidates who apply to his department get hired.

He said there’s a kind of social unrest nationally that’s made careers in law enforcement less appealing to young people. “I know right now I could use two more school resource officers and two more patrol officers. The difficulty is finding people who are willing to take on this profession.”

Finding seasoned officers who want to work with kids inside schools is even harder he said.

"The difficulty is finding people who are willing to take on this profession." - Rutland County Sheriff Stephen Benard

Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell agreed.

“For me to put someone in the school, it has to be someone that has a decent level of experience, one, in law enforcement, number two, specifically with juvenile law, and three, someone that can work unsupervised," Brickell said.

Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux Jr. said rural law enforcement agencies like his often deal with high staff turnover. He said officers get certified and work for a few years in a small department like his, but then transfer to the state police or a larger agency for better pay or benefits. 

Funding is another hurdle. Many schools may want a school resource officer, but Marcoux said in his part of Vermont, few districts can afford them.

In response, the National Association of School Resource Officers provides training for school security officers – SSOs. These are not sworn police officers, but more like private security guards who might cost less or work more flexible hours.

Rob Evans, Vermont’s school safety liaison officer, said SSOs might include retired police officers aspiring police officers, or somebody from the community who takes an interest in the schools.

He likes the idea of SSOs as long as the training and vetting is carefully controlled.

“You know this is an educational environment, with all the sensitivities associated with that,” Evans said. "We need to make sure that they have the training, not only of what their duties and responsibilities are, but confidentiality and cultural competency. All those kinds of things that anybody who works in a school environment needs to be aware of.”