To Serve and Protect
(Editor’s Note: This is part one in a four-part series from The Daniel Island News on local school resource officers. In this first article, we examine the role of the SRO in the Berkeley County School District, including the officers’ efforts to train for worst-case scenarios, deter crime, and build positive relationships with the students they serve. In subsequent issues, we will introduce you to the individual SROs serving at local schools on Daniel Island and the Cainhoy peninsula.)
In the 13 months since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, debates about gun safety and mental health have understandably been a social centerpiece of the collective mind. And with 23 other school shootings that resulted in injury or death in 2018, tragedies such as the one in Parkland are impossible to ignore for most in the general population.
On the spectrum of less radical suggestions to prevent further attacks on educational institutes, an increased presence of school resource officers (SRO) seemed to be a popular concept. In fact, the Berkeley County School District (BCSD) already has officers in every high school and middle school, in conjunction with the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department, Goose Creek Police Department, Charleston Police Department, Moncks Corner Police Department, and the Hanahan Police Department.
“I think a lot of times, SROs are kind of the unsung heroes,” said BCSD Safety and Security Officer Tim Knight. “There’s a lot of stuff they do that the general public does not see and probably will never see, and that just comes with the job… Not every law enforcement officer is cut out to be an SRO.”
On one hand, SROs are a deterrent for violence or criminal activity, a strategically placed protection. But the day-to-day responsibilities for a uniformed officer in school aren’t about sitting and waiting for the unthinkable to happen.
“Of course, number one: they are a law enforcement officer,” said Knight. “They’ve got a gun and a badge and they’re a sworn officer or deputy. But, also the SRO plays that teacher, mentor, counselor role, as well, which is different than a regular patrol officer.”
In addition to high level threats to the school, SROs spend a lot of time talking to students, added Knight.
“Not everything that they respond to or deal with results in an actual criminal charge,” he said. “In the past, that was kind of the attitude of all law enforcement agencies.”
“When the SRO’s involved, there is a lot more counseling, a lot more talking with the parents, getting a good plan in place on how to move forward. If you’re in school, and you actually get a criminal charge, you have done something pretty serious,” Knight concluded.
According to Knight, the best trait for an SRO to possess is a big heart for kids.
“They’re a good cop, they have really good communication skills, not only to be able to talk and have a good relationship with the principals and teachers, but also with the kids,” Knight explained. “They understand how to talk to kids, they understand that they’re there to be that mentor, to be that counselor for them, and they’re not there to just arrest everybody.”
SROs are asked to comprehend the gravity of their actions, especially when handling a situation that could result in serious measures.
“They do have a lot of discretion,” Knight observed. “To be able to use their discretion wisely and understand that the decision that they make could definitely impact this student’s life forever [is important].”
“We don’t want our SROs, nor do our chiefs and our sheriff—they don’t want their men and women in the schools to be the big bad cop with the gun and the badge walking around with dark sunglasses, scaring and intimidating,” Knight quipped.
Berkeley County has provided specialized training to its SROs every summer for the past five years.
“One day is focused on active shooter training and we spend a full day on that,” said Knight. “And then the other days, we focus on things like making sure everybody is certified amongst CPR and first aid. We actually use our district nurses to come in and get everybody certified.”
The training session lasts four to five days, and touches on a wide range of topics that expands occasionally.
“We also focused on things like de-escalation tactics, how to use soft-verbal—how to calm down students because we do have some students who get stressed really easily and they sometimes become combative,” Knight explained. “If an SRO is called to help a principal or help a teacher, they have the skills to be able to calm students down.”
The BCSD Safety and Security Officer added that mental health has been a central conversation for Berkeley County SROs in the last couple of years. Teaching officers about the unique situations students are faced with, and how to handle them properly, is a safe way to stop violence before it happens, Knight believes. More importantly, a proactive and caring approach could keep these students on the right track.
“We have brought in different mental health people from Berkeley Mental Health, different organizations come in, spend some time with our SROs, talking about ‘if a child is diagnosed with this condition, this is what to expect,’” said Knight. “Now, they’ve got a much better mindset of what to expect when dealing with certain types of students, different types of conditions.”
When choosing an SRO for a school, the district tries to assure that the officer will have great communication with the school’s authority.
“The SRO and the administrators, the principal, the assistant principals—they’ve got to have a really good working relationship in order to be successful, and we really try to do that.”
A frequent topic of conversation on SROs is if they should be a standard part of elementary schools, as well.
“We are totally all for it,” said Knight. “It’s just getting the manpower and funding.”
Knight also believes that this can instill a trust in law enforcement from a young age. Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis and Berkeley County School Board Member Mac McQuillin have both publicly expressed support for adding SROs to elementary schools.
In the 2017-2018 school year, the Berkeley County School District experienced 58 reported incidents of physical attack without a weapon, 411 reported threats of physical attack without a weapon, seven reported incidents of sexual assault and one rape, according to BCSD’s most recent SC School Report Card. The same report indicated that 86 percent of parents countywide say that their child feels safe at school, while 65.6 percent believe that the teachers and administrators at their child’s school prevent bullying effectively. Approximately 87.5 percent of Hanahan High School parents say that their child feels safe at school. The numbers are 100 percent for Philip Simmons High School, 92 percent for Daniel Island School, and 85.8 percent for Philip Simmons Middle School for the same survey.