Heyl Royster

A HS Student's Arrest Leads to Close Examination of School Resource Officer Roles & Responsibilities

january 13, 2016

By: Wade Blumenshine

After a video of a school resource officer (SRO) arresting a student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina went viral, public attention focused on the presence of SROs in schools throughout the country.

Just days after video of the SRO pulling a student from her desk became public, the Richland County Sheriff fired the SRO for violating the agency's use of force policy and training, and the school district promised to improve the conflict avoidance and de-escalation training for school resource officers.

Although this was an isolated incident, it is a fresh reminder that effective school-based law enforcement programs require more than simply stationing officers in schools. Strong SRO programs are built on the careful selection and training of officers, well-defined roles and responsibilities, and a comprehensive agreement between the school and the law enforcement agency that fosters collaboration, communication, and ongoing evaluation.

In Illinois, police agencies have long provided services to schools. It has only been in the past two decades, however, that assigning police officers to schools on a full-time basis became a widespread practice. These officers are commonly referred to as school resource officers (SROs) or education resource officers.

If the school community has identified the need for law enforcement presence in school buildings, the school needs to set forth a memoranda of understanding (MOU) that outlines the roles and responsibilities of the SRO while on school grounds. The MOU should clearly specify how SROs will assist and partner with school officials to manage discipline issues and disruptive student behavior.

A written contract governs the role of the SRO while assigned to the school. Article VII, Section 10 of the Constitution of the State of Illinois and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act, 5 ILCS 220/1 et seq., provide for the execution of agreements and implementation of cooperative ventures between public agencies within the State of Illinois. These contractual agreements are required to allow the school and the local police agency to form a partnership and to implement an SRO program.

A MOU is not one-size-fits-all; they should be created through a collaborative process that includes stakeholders from education, law enforcement, and the wider community. This process can establish a common vision that meets the unique needs, goals, and safety challenges of the school and its surrounding community. Moreover, an MOU should allow for adaptation to evolving needs and goals of the school district.

Key components of an MOU:

  • Mission. Defining the overarching purpose of the SRO.
  • Goals and objectives. Outlining the purpose and expected outcomes of the program.
  • Roles and responsibilities. Defining the SRO's responsibilities within the context of the educational mission.
  • Level and type of commitment from partners. Spelling out allocations of funding and resources.
  • Governance structure. Outlining the leadership and chain of command.
  • Process for selecting SROs. Outlining the selection process.
  • Minimum training requirements for SROs. Describing training content and funding sources.
  • Information exchange. Explaining the process by which partners gather and share information.
  • Program and SRO evaluation. Clarifying measures of success, evaluation, team composition and scope, and input from stakeholders.
  • Student rights. Discussing students' rights related to a safe and positive school environment, police search and seizure, and use of force.
  • Integrating the SRO. Outlining mechanisms for incorporating the SRO into the school environment and existing school-based prevention and promotion.
  • Transparency and accountability. Clarifying the collection and public sharing of data related to SRO programming.

Achieving an appropriate balance through an MOU is critical to avoiding litigation and to achieving an environment focused on student learning. One way to promote equilibrium is for school officials, local law enforcement agencies, and school attorneys to take a closer look at the MOU that formalizes the relationship between the school district and the local law enforcement agency.

Unfortunately, many MOUs often fail to address the roles of school officials and SROs with respect to student discipline and maintaining the educational environment, resulting in spur of the moment decisions that may ultimately upset the ideal balance between school safety and student rights. By discussing matters beforehand, all involved can carefully consider the local conditions necessitating the presence of SROs and take into account the applicable laws and relevant school policies on certain issues, such as search and seizure, questioning of students, and requests for student records.

Although many lower courts have considered the issue, the Supreme Court of the United States has not yet ruled on what standard should be used when school officials act in concert with or at the request of law enforcement agencies. A well crafted MOU can give school officials the confidence to assert their authority over an SRO to control their own school buildings, programs, and the discipline of students. This is essential given school officials' potential liability for violations of students' established constitutional rights.

For assistance drafting an MOU or for any other education-related matter, please contact any of the attorneys in Heyl Royster's Education Law Practice Group.

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