Funding exists for 301 school resource officers through the Arizona Department of Education’s School Safety Grant, but some schools have yet to find an officer to fill the position.
ADE and law enforcement organization officials point to a lack of law enforcement officers across the board which they say trickles down to specialty assignments like SROs to create safety gaps in schools.
The lack of law enforcement was identified as an immediate hurdle by Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne and director of School Safety Mike Kurtenbach in the first meeting of the department’s school safety task force last week.
“We have a situation where we funded something and they can’t find someone to fulfill it,” Horne told task force members.
Schools have until the end of the year to hire an SRO with grant funding. Kurtenbach said because of the timeline, the number of vacancies across the state remains fluid. But he pointed to the city of Phoenix as one example of unfilled but funded positions.
On July 3, the Phoenix City Council voted to fill 61 of the 86 funded SRO positions, citing short staffing at the Phoenix Police Department.
The department has the budget for 3,125 sworn officer positions but only has 2,562 officers on staff, according to Sgt. Phil Krynsky, a spokesperson for Phoenix Police Department.
Matt Giordano, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board and a task force member, said staffing continues to be an ongoing challenge for law enforcement agencies generally.
“Obviously the number one thing that we want to be able to do when someone picks up the phone and calls 911 in the law enforcement profession is to be able to have someone respond,” Giordano said.
He noted that problems stemming from inadequate staffing compound when patrol officers are shifted to SRO positions.
“You’re leaving a void somewhere else,” Giordano said.
One of the potential solutions floated by the task force was a separate SRO certification by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.
But the change would need to come through the Legislature, and Giordano expressed concern about creating any specialty certification with lower requirements than a full authority peace officer.
“SROs engage in all matters of the spectrum of law enforcement working on a campus, from domestic violence to assaults, to threats, to intimidation to all kinds of things,” Giordano said. “In my opinion, it would be very hard to narrow down what we could take out of the full academy curriculum to adequately prepare a school resource officer at a lower level.”
Stephen Dieu, president of the Arizona School Resource Officers Association, SRO at Chandler High School and task force member, answered the phone from the school cafeteria. He said the SRO position requires traditional law enforcement training as well as interpersonal skills stretching beyond the typical bounds of policing.
After stepping out of the conversation and clammer of the lunchroom, Dieu noted embracing the chaos is one key part of the job.
“We have a large freshman class and they’ve got a lot of energy. And being able to successfully interact with them without being intimidated yourself as an adult is a skill,” Dieu said. “And so, you balance that. Where there’s order, there’s peace, where there’s order there’s safety. And I can be a positive authority in an environment that at times seems chaotic.”
Dieu continued: “School resource officers is one of those unique specialties. You have got to have patience to work with kids. Not every adult has that. And then you narrow that down with police officers who are accustomed to being that authority figure in the lives of adults. And everyone around them. And providing order in situations of chaos.”
He said SROs operate not only as police officers, but as informal counselors and teachers or mentors, as well.
Another idea to fill in gaps from the task force was to certify and hire retired law enforcement personnel. Giordano supported the idea, given proper recertification and good standing.
Dieu advocated for further training for SROs, citing a national standard. He also emphasized the importance of integrated training and collaboration with counselors, social workers, intervention specialists, among other school staff.
“There is sometimes a disconnect with a clear understanding of what it takes to implement a successful positive prevention-based school safety program,” Dieu said. “Some of those shortfalls include immediate training, mentorship, adequate education of that school community as to what that officer’s goal is.”
The School Safety Task Force plans to split into working groups to address operations and staffing, funding and grants, and training. Dieu and Giordano both plan to participate.
Kurtenbach said ADE is also in the process of bringing in additional subject matter experts to contribute to ongoing discussions. He emphasized the importance of bringing in representatives from organizations most impacted by potential changes.
“We don’t want the task force to create something that doesn’t make sense to the people that are actually charged with implementing whatever the task force comes up with,” Kurtenbach said.