Experts weigh benefits of school resource officers

STEM School relies on private security firm rather than SRO

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Leaders in school safety and law enforcement agree that school resource officers offer more than security.

They provide education about issues like cyberbullying and dating violence and engrain themselves in the student body, said Lt. Lori Bronner, who oversees the SROs at Douglas County School District. When threats are made against schools, they work with administrators to track down the origin.

“They are part of that school community,” Bronner said at a May 13 work session held by Douglas County commissioners, when additional funding for school security was discussed. “They are friends, they are family. That school, those students are part of their heart and their soul.”

STEM School Highlands Ranch, where a school shooting on May 7 left one student dead and eight others injured, doesn’t have an SRO. For more than a year it has contracted with a private security firm that employs men and women with military backgrounds as guards.

In the wake of tragedy, questions linger on the effectiveness of an SRO versus a private security firm and the future of security at Douglas County schools. A large barrier to school security, experts in education and law enforcement say, is funding.

Douglas County School District and county officials say they are working toward solutions. On May 13, Douglas County commissioners held a special work session to discuss allocating $10 million to heighten school safety in Douglas County following the STEM tragedy.

Their work session motion named “physical entryway security technology and mental health services for children,” as well as “a community response team for kids in schools, with the option to consider safety on-site specialists” and to “specifically train school resource officers dedicated solely to school security.”

Commissioners unanimously approved directing staff to prepare a supplemental budget item for their May 28 meeting that allocates the one-time $10 million toward school safety. That is when the decision to dedicate the money will be formally considered.

Most community members agree that change is imminent. What that looks like is up for debate.

Severing ties

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, the sheriff’s office ended its existing contract with STEM that provided an SRO to the school half time. STEM paid $26,925, the same amount as SkyView Academy, the school it shared the SRO with, according to a copy of the contract. The sheriff’s office covered the remaining $53,850, for a total cost of $111,850 for the year.

Sheriff Tony Spurlock said STEM did not properly use its SRO, who was mainly asked to direct traffic, citing that as a main reason for the discontinuation of the contract, according to documents released by the sheriff’s office on May 10.

The charter school — which under Colorado law operates on its own as a separate nonprofit entity but receives public funding — began contracting with the private security company BOSS High Level Protection, based in Greenwood Village. A security guard was on site at the time of the shooting and reportedly helped detain one of the suspects. The owner of the firm declined to say if the guard was armed.

“The unfortunate fact is that schools with and without SROs have experienced violence,” reads a May 10 statement from STEM’s public relations firm. “With regard to the tragedy on May 7, 2019, we credit both the actions of our private security guard, the team of DCSO law enforcement officials who were on scene within two minutes, and the heroic students and staff members at STEM for minimizing the number of fatalities and casualties.”

After news reports surfaced that the guard may have fired his weapon in the direction of a sheriff’s office deputy as law enforcement responded to the school May 7, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler told media he had referred an investigation into the private security guard’s actions.

‘A spectrum’

John McDonald, who is in charge of school safety and security at Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district with 85,000 students, doesn’t know if there is a gold standard for school safety, he said.

He does know that it begins with a good climate and culture. McDonald is recognized nationally for rebooting his district’s security protocols following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.

“School safety is a spectrum. It’s mental health, threat assessment, target hardening, active shooter planning,” McDonald said. “It’s focusing on working with our kids so that schools are a place where they are free of threat and intimidation and bullying, and they are a place where kids thrive and learn and grow.”

McDonald stresses three types of school security: SROs, armed security teams and private security firms. SROs and security teams — who are trained to operate in schools and work closely with local law enforcement, unlike private security firms, which serve public and private clients — tend to be highly trained in areas of de-escalation and active shooter response, as well as student engagement. Most have law enforcement backgrounds.

By definition, an SRO is a sworn, certified law enforcement officer, according to Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. They’re deployed in the school community in a “policing-based strategy” and differ from other types of security in that their main goal is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youths, Canady said.

“SROs have an opportunity to gather a lot of valuable intelligence,” Canady said. “Relationship are not just built with students but also with parents, with education personnel. It’s a very holistic, if you will, approach to this. It’s not just, put an armed guard in place and hope they can stop the event. It’s much more in-depth than that.”

Common protocol

McDonald’s concern with private security firms, such as the one utilized by STEM, is training.

“It’s important to make sure there is a training component to your hiring,” McDonald said. “Training has to be aligned with the training of your local law enforcement agencies.”

Grant Whitus, owner of BOSS Level Security, would not disclose details about the company’s training, citing the ongoing investigation by the sheriff’s office.

He confirmed that he trains his guards using the standard response protocol, a universal response to school emergencies that includes lockdowns, lockouts and evacuation procedures. A lockout is used when there is a threat outside of the school. A lockdown is used when the threat is inside of a school.

DCSD’s safety and security department uses the same protocol. In the STEM shooting, deputies were on scene within minutes of the call. A sheriff’s substation is located less than a mile from the school.

Tragedies like the STEM school shooting force schools and districts to take a hard look at what they want and need in terms of security measures, as well as climate and culture, McDonald said.

“Today, it’s not just that our students and staff need to feel safe,” McDonald said. “They need to be safe.”

— Colorado Community Media reporter Jessica Gibbs contributed to this report.

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