Local News

Story published: 02-19-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

What exactly is the job of a school resource officer?

By Karen Sells
Assistant Editor

Student safety is the primary purpose of school resource officers, but the role of Washington County SROs is way more than standing guard waiting for a possible gunman to arrive.

“If the safety is not there, you have no secure learning environment,” said Washington County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. John Rupe, who supervises the six SROs.

Often, the danger comes from inside the building. Over the years, SROs have arrested students for everything from narcotics violations and theft to bringing weapons such as knives onto a campus.

The investigations SROs conduct regarding those violations are duties that would otherwise go out to a unit on patrol.

SROs also serve as mentors to students in a variety of ways. They speak during driver’s education and government classes, present anti-drug message seminars and provide question-and-answer sessions with students on a host of topics.

In addition, SROs are a resource in cases of students who are suspected of wanting to hurt themselves.

While the school system has truancy officers, SROs are sometimes asked to leave a school to visit a private home to confirm a child’s welfare or safety while investigating a report of alleged child abuse. Such home visits take up no more than one hour a week, according to Rupe.

“We have an excellent working relationship with the school system and have knocked down the formal barriers in working with the Department of Children’s Services,” he said.

While Washington County has not experienced a school shooting, Rupe said all SROs are trained to respond to an active shooter in addition to their other SRO duties.

“The primary goal is to find the threat and use force to stop it. There’s too much to lose if we fail,” he said.

David Crockett High School had a close call in 2006 when a student brought a gun into the building. The SRO there played a critical role in resolving the problem.

“He had the hammer cocked and meant to do harm, but the SRO knew him and was able to disarm him,” Rupe remembered.

A scare at Sulphur Springs Elementary School last week also involved a response from an SRO.

A 19-year-old man with a sister at Sulphur Springs School received an alert from an automated call system about a lockdown in place at a school in Greene County, but mistakenly thought it was for Sulphur Springs School.

He notified their mother who called and asked the receptionist if the school was on lockdown. When the receptionist said no, the mother hung up. The SRO standing nearby thought the question was unusual so she called the mother back.

Erring on the side of caution, the SRO spoke with Rupe and instituted a lockdown that lasted less than an hour. Additional officers responded to secure the area and search the building and school property. They also cased the neighborhood, but found nothing to indicate there was danger.

Officers brought the 19-year-old to the school and interviewed him for half an hour. “We believe he had no malicious intent, and it was the result of a lot of confusion,” Rupe said.

With talks of expanding the SRO program to enable one to be assigned to every school, some fear the role of SROs will be narrowed to that of a security guard.

“Assault can take place in any area. I’m not sure if having officers just at the front doors would be a benefit,” Rupe said, adding his SROs are in agreement. “They’re very concerned because there are so many points of entry, and they need to be flexible so they can move about the building, and also respond to any other need.”