Police school liaison officer: 'It's the most important position in department'

  • In US
  • 2021-12-01 17:44:59Z
  • By Detroit Free Press

Like many schools across the country, Oxford High School has a police officer assigned to patrol its halls and campus.

On Tuesday, according to a law enforcement official, that deputy and a responding deputy disarmed and arrested a 15-year-old student who is accused of killing three fellow students and wounding eight others, including a teacher.

The mass shooting could jump-start talks about school safety, including whether more police officers should be in schools, but Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said those conversations are for another day.

"I think it's too early to talk about what policies might need to be changed about this," she said in responding to a question about school safety during a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

It's unclear exactly how many Michigan schools have dedicated police liaison officers. Those officers are also known as school resource officers.

Those who do the job and who train those to the job say it's a vital post.

"It's the most important position in the police department," Sgt. Jeff Soli of the Fowlerville Police Department told the Free Press in an interview shortly after the Oxford High shooting. Soli is also the president of the Schools, Educators, Police Liaison Association in Michigan. The group runs annual trainings, which include active shooter drills. The 2021 conference, held in Mount Pleasant, had more than 100 attendees.

Soli should know. He has been patrolling Fowlerville High School and other Fowlerville schools for the past 25 years. When he started in the mid-1990s, he was the first such officer in Livingston County. Within a year, he said, most of the county's other school districts had similar officers.

Everything we know: Oxford High School shooting leaves 4 dead, multiple injured

More: Prayer vigils, Mass planned in wake of Oxford High School shooting

Officers assigned to schools have a three-pronged job, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which is based in Alabama. He said his association trained 14 SROs with the Oakland County Sheriff's Office and was in Oakland County a few years ago for training on adolescent mental health.

"It is the most unique assignment" in departments, he said, because the officers must carry out law enforcement duties, work on educational matters (such as classroom talks) and in counseling students.

The national association conducts 40-hour training sessions for new SROs, with a lot of focus on adolescent brain development.

"You can't police in that environment the way you would do it on the streets, where you would be dealing with more adults," he said late Tuesday afternoon. "This is very much relationship-based policing."

Much of the training also deals with how to deescalate situations. But when situations arise, he said, the SRO "has to take on the role as being the best tactical officer" in the department. Often working alone, SROs know that in a school shooting situation "people are dying until you are able to stop it."

SROs first started in the U.S. in 1958 in Flint, as a way to improve relationships between police and teens, according to the Police Foundation. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the task was largely anti-drug and anti-gang education. Then, in the late 1990s, as school shootings began to climb, more schools added officers as part of security measures.

In the 2005-06 school year, about 42% of all public schools across the U.S. had some sort of security staff, including sworn law enforcement officers, according to an annual school safety report published in 2020 by the federal Department of Education and Department of Justice. In the 2017-18 school year, the latest for which data is available, that was up to just over 61%. In the same 2017-18 school year, about 47% of public schools had sworn, armed law enforcement officers. Most of those schools are high schools with more than 1,000 students. Oxford has about 1,800 students.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District Police Department is the only school district-based sworn department in the state. It is completely separate from the Detroit Police Department run by the city of Detroit.

Canady said the number of schools with police officers has remained pretty stable, even though conversations about the roles of police in communities and school districts have been debated in recent years.

In Michigan, staffing shortages among police departments in recent times have led departments to pull officers out of schools and put them back on road patrol, Soli said.

Soli loves his job working in the Fowlerville schools.

"I do a lot of talking to students," he said. He's often not in uniform. "I talk often with kids who are on the edge and would never talk to me" outside of school.

"You've got to be able to get along with kids."

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Police school liaison officer: 'Most important position in department'


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