Part of my daughter's morning school arrival routine is stopping to say "Hi!" to Officer Steve, her school resource officer (SRO). And daily, even with all he is managing during morning drop-offs, he never fails to share a smile or a laugh with her.
I am there enough to know that Officer Steve enjoys similar relationships with many kids, not just my daughter. As a parent, I am more thankful for his service than he could ever know. He has taken time to build and nurture genuine, positive relationships with her and so many other students.
Positive relationships with adults at school can have enormous social and emotional benefits for students. Additionally, students' positive relationships with police officers at school are impactful because they get to practice the kind of relationship we want our children to have with police officers as teens and adults. But make no mistake about it, more often than any of us want to think about, it's the SROs in our schools that stand between our children and those who seek, plan and plot to do them great harm.
While there is no single school safety measure that will ever completely eliminate the threat of harm in our schools, as a dad and the husband of a high school educator, I am comforted in knowing there is a well-trained, experienced SRO who is ready and willing to meet danger at the school door if need be.
While I don't remember his time as a deputy in the local sheriff's office, my dad's uniform shirts hung in my bedroom closet and I remember dressing up in them when I was a child as I pretended to be a police officer. In school, I can remember Officer Friendly visiting my 1980s classrooms. I also had the benefit of participating in the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program taught by local law enforcement officers as a 5th-grader, and then participated in P.A.L. (Police Athletic League) activities as a high schooler.
So throughout my childhood and teenage years, I had positive ideas about and experiences with law enforcement officers, but overall, my relationship with law enforcement as an adolescent was complicated.
As a pre-teen, my friends and I would routinely run when one of us saw an officer and announced to our group, "5-0, run!" We hadn't done anything wrong. We just had a feeling that if the police were coming, we didn't need to be around when they arrived. In our defense, even with my largely positive experiences with law enforcement growing up, I also had seen or experienced my fair share of questionable and illegal behavior from some police officers. And at different points throughout my teenage years, I had been racially profiled by police and stopped or harassed in shopping centers or while driving.
I do not look at the world through rose-colored glasses, oblivious to some of the historical and current challenges with law enforcement that some American communities face. I was born and raised in one such community.
In my New Orleans neighborhood, gunshots were not uncommon. I learned at a young age to recognize when it looked like a drive-by shooting was about to happen and duck for cover. I have run away from gunfire more times than I want to remember.
Like too many American students, I have heard the crack of gunfire in my high school hallway. And like too many of our current students, I have lost friends and loved ones to gun violence and to prison for perpetrating gun violence. But even with my complicated history, I have never doubted, nor do I have a single doubt today, that local, state and federal law enforcement agencies keep us safe from the dangers we see and from so many other dangers that we thankfully never even hear about. That certainly is true for our SROs.
SROs are so much more than police officers assigned to schools. These professionals become part of the school staff, part of the team, part of the school family. I had the privilege of personally working with SROs during my time as a teacher. With the population of students I worked with, SROs were particularly instrumental. The SROs I worked with protected students and staff from outsiders, but just as importantly, they often found themselves protecting staff from students, protecting students from other students, and sometimes, protecting a student from himself or herself.
In Kentucky, I see SROs working with students and school staff, and going well-above the call of duty to not only keep students safe, but also doing everything they can to make sure schools have positive and supportive learning environments for students. In my travels across the state as commissioner of education, I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with SROs in Woodford, Fayette, Nelson, McCracken, Monroe, Graves, Pike and Jefferson counties.
While many of the daily challenges Kentucky SROs face are similar from community to community, the contexts are different. Challenges with drugs and safety for students and staff seem to be common across the state. Some SROs are heavily engaged in supporting instruction for students in areas ranging from drug abuse and healthy living to character education and community service. Other SROs, because of the contexts where they serve, spend a tremendous amount of time working to keep the growing challenges of gang and violence epidemics off school premises.
Safety is paramount to student learning and achievement, and I am thankful for the courageous heroes who literally put their lives on the line daily to keep our children and our school staff safe. I am thankful for the leadership of the Kentucky General Assembly in the passage of Senate Bill 1 in the 2019 legislative session, which among other measures, prioritizes the placement of SROs in our schools. I look forward to continuing to work with legislators, the Governor's Office and local school districts as we work toward the goal of having SRO protection on each of our school campuses.
Wayne D. Lewis, Ph.D., is the Kentucky Commissioner of Education.