School districts across the country handle school safety and security in a variety of different ways. Some rely on teachers and administrators as their security personnel, while others contract with the local police department or sheriff’s office for school resource officer services.
Here in Fontana, California, we are one of 19 school districts in the state that have a school police department that reports directly to the school board and superintendent. Some districts in Florida and Texas also follow this format.
As law enforcement officers in schools, we have a unique opportunity to be a part of the educational process, to protect students, and to prevent future crime. But it all starts with adopting the mindset that education and the student must always come first.
When a student is removed from the classroom due to minor criminal acts, we may be adding additional undue psychological trauma and future harm by affecting their chances of receiving financial aid or gaining admission to the school they’re pursuing. Arresting or issuing a citation to students should always be a last option.
This is an important facet of school safety that may go overlooked at times, but it is a daily threat to the learning process. School shootings are a real concern for parents and the threat of harm coming on to school campuses is a primary concern for our department. However, school shootings are rare and that can be difficult to communicate to parents. The fear that they experience when they see a tragic school event on the news is very real and something we need to address by explaining what school safety really means to our parents while acknowledging the concerns they share.
Overall, our challenge as law enforcement officers on campus is a balancing act of ensuring our schools are secured facilities while creating an open environment for kids to feel safe and learn. We don’t want students to feel like they’re going through airport security screening or entering a prison-like setting every time they come to campus.
If it’s done correctly, school policing can be very powerful. It can be a transformative experience for our students.
When law enforcement is called into a situation where the school administration is asking us to perform our role as police officers, I hope the first thing that goes through an officer’s mind is the impact they’re having on a particular student. We can do a lot to push that kid back on the right path. Conversely, if done wrong, we can unnecessarily push a kid into the criminal justice system.
Students are complex individuals. Some come to school with emotional issues and struggle to be mentally prepared to learn that day. Maybe they missed breakfast that morning, they saw their parents fight the night before, they’ve been a victim of bullying, or they live within a neighborhood that is surrounded by trauma-inducing violence. If we can deal with some of the social and emotional issues that kids go through on a daily basis, then we can improve the learning process and improve the likelihood that students achieve the academic success they’re seeking.
As a law enforcement officer, if you’re in school just to act as a hammer coming in to hammer a nail, those productive relationships with students will never exist.
From a law enforcement standpoint, prevention is always better than reaction. If you’re able to build relationships with students, teach them, and mentor them away from making wrong choices, we have a unique opportunity to prevent crimes. When you’re in that moment when you have the power to arrest or cite a student, think about that student’s entire life and their future. This is your “teachable moment” opportunity.
If you just look at the number of people that are in prison right now, one thing they all have in common is that at one point in their life they were in school, many in public education. At that time, if we were able to have some type of relationship with that student that would have caused them to think twice about the crime they were committing, we might be able to prevent a good number of those people being in prison.
Unfortunately, some parents see officers on campus as part of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” That’s a perception that we need to shed by showing the community that our relationship with students can actually improve their behavior and take them away from a criminal path. There are some laws where we are mandated to respond to a school-related incident or take a student into custody, but in general, our mindset is to always keep that child in the classroom.
Serving Many Roles
As school resource officers, we serve a variety of roles throughout the day. Although a bonafide law enforcement agency, we primarily provide students, staff and the greater school community with specialized policing and public safety services, but we’re also teachers and mentors.
As a teacher, our officers lead classroom lessons about drug use, bullying, traffic safety, and the use of social media, among other topics. By communicating these lessons to students, we can hopefully influence their approach to these issues and keep them out of harm’s way when they’re walking home from school or on campus talking to friends.
Outside of law enforcement and teaching, many of our officers are on a first name basis with students and they’re able to engage those students throughout the day in conversations about what is going on in their schools. For those students who have social and emotional issues, a healthy relationship between the officer and student provides another way for that student to receive counseling and advice from a quality role model.
For example, we had a young lady in one of our schools who was suicidal and would have occasional outbursts. Following unsuccessful interventions from teachers, school administrators, and counselors, one of our officers was called in to speak with the student. As soon as he walked in the room, the student broke down and was able to articulate to him what was causing her problems.
In this instance, the officer didn’t come in with any special training, but the positive relationship he had developed with the student prior to this instance allowed a pathway for her to express the frustrations she was dealing with.
As a former officer in a municipal police agency, I know some communities see police officers as villains and that’s a hurdle that many officers face in schools across the country. Thankfully, law enforcement in Fontana is viewed very positively by the community and this really helps the initial relationship we have with students to reach that kid, connect with them, and offer advice when necessary.
Whatever community you serve, every good school resource officer should develop the mindset that the educational process is a part of our law enforcement duty. Through the educational process, we can prevent crime and literally stop crimes from happening. Here in California, there is a 40-hour class that all school resource officers must attend, but training is not going to change a mindset.
The mindset has to come before the training. The training simply gives you the tools necessary to act upon the mindset that you already have.
About Notes From the Field
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.
NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.
Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.
About the Author
Chief Martin Sissac has served as Chief of Police with the Fontana Unified School District (FUSD) since October 2015. FUSD is located 50 miles east of Los Angeles and includes 45 schools serving over 40,000 students from preschool through adult education.
Sissac started his career in law enforcement in 1989 through an internship with the Inglewood Unified School District and later joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Following his time with the sheriff’s department, he returned to Inglewood, joining the city police department in 1993. Sissac eventually became a police captain in Inglewood and served as Chief of Police for the Inglewood Unified School District for about a year before moving to Fontana.
Writing and editorial support was provided by Blair Ames, a writer with a federal contractor on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.