Preparing for the Unthinkable
The unthinkable happened in Kentucky in January 2018. A school shooting in Marshall County claimed two lives, and another 18 people were injured during the early morning attack.
The act spurred an effort that eventually became a piece of emergency legislation known as Senate Bill 1 or the School Safety and Resiliency Act, signed into law by Gov. Matt Bevin in March 2019.
The bill is designed to enhance safety in Kentucky’s public schools and requires the hiring of school resource officers (SRO) as funding allows.
The Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT) is responsible for training the SROs, and the training must meet the demand of the times, DOCJT instructor Bill Eckler said.
“Early on, (DOCJT) Commissioner (Alex) Payne and I had a meeting about SRO training,” Eckler said. “I shared some ideas with him, and I wanted to take the training up to the next level. I was able to do that with Payne’s help and direction.”
Eckler spent a large portion of his career with the Berea Police Department working in the schools as an SRO. And as such, he is no stranger to the many challenges that await officers when they arrive on campuses across the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Because SROs have unique schedules, Eckler said that played a part in coming up with the modern curriculum.
“The days of just going into the schools as an old street police officer are over,” Eckler said. “Nowadays, it’s not like that. The agencies and schools want the best of the best. We’re raising the bar. (SROs) have flexible schedules, and it’s not a typical shift, as they are responsible for after-hour events, such as band competitions and football games.
“An SRO should be the best at all the hats they wear,” he continued. “That’s the type of officer a school needs, and that’s the type of officer we’re producing.”
After several months of meetings, Eckler said DOCJT came up with a three-week curriculum that the agency began teaching in June. The curriculum is broken down into three stages – Level I, Level II and Level III.
Eckler called the three weeks of training a career path.
To serve as an SRO in any public school, officers must attend the three weeks of training offered over three years. The training must be taken in order, Eckler said.
The training curriculum includes:
Foundations of school-based law enforcement
Threat assessment and response
Youth drug use and abuse
Social media and cybersecurity
SROs as teachers and mentors
Youth mental health awareness training
Understanding students with special needs
“Our classes are specific to the SRO,” Eckler stressed. “The classes we teach are everything an SRO could come into contact with or have to deal with, whether it’s a student, staff member and parents/grandparents. It includes (training) on how to communicate with principals and teachers and how to work with school superintendents and boards of education.”
While there is SRO training offered in other states, Eckler said Kentucky’s is unique in its focus.
“To our knowledge, there is no one in the United States that has a program like this,” he offered. “It’s something we’re proud of.”
Developing the relationship between SROs, students and school staff is key, and preparing officers to take on those non-traditional duties is paramount in the different levels of the curriculum,” Eckler said.
“A juvenile may come to an SRO and ask what they can expect when they go to court because they want to know how the system works,” he said. “A driver’s education teacher may have the SRO come in and talk with the students. SROs may go into a science class and talk about fingerprinting. They can teach so many things.”
As time goes by, the training will be updated to include information on up and coming trends and other issues.
Preparing for the Unthinkable
Technology has played a crucial role in schoolyard incidents, which can result in bullying and ultimately, violence.
“One of the things that is different in today’s world is we have social media, and that information now gets out much faster,” Eckler said. “Students now have phones in schools, and they record video. They get into social media arguments, and if it happens over the weekend, come Monday, the SRO will have to deal with a fight. And many times, parents can get involved, so it turns into harassing communication. There’s just a lot of things … it’s like a honeycomb.”
Eckler also opined that weapons are readily available to many school-aged children.
“Parents who purchase these (long guns and other weapons), and for whatever reason, they don’t lock them up, or if they do lock them up, the kids know the combination or where the keys are,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen.”
Ultimately, while the training involves preventative measure, it also focuses on the real-world application of law enforcement skills should the unthinkable happen.
“On the other side, it prepares an officer to be ready if the worst thing we could ever imagine happens. If it does, they’ll know exactly what to do and step into that role,” Eckler said. “We’re putting a little more emphasis on the firing range and defensive tactics. We’re covering all the bases from the beginning to the end.”
When an SRO is engaged in an incident that might require restraining a student, they have to approach it with different tactics, Eckler said.
“There are different methods for kids versus adults,” he said. “With juveniles, they teach pressure points. They teach pressure points so when they have to handcuff, and handcuffing will be the last resort, but if they do, SROs will use the training they received on how to deal with juveniles.”
Assessing one’s mental health is now a necessary tool to have in the SRO tool belt, Eckler said, so a block of training focuses on that issue.
“This can be anything from mental health, to special needs, we are really focusing on that,” he said. “I’ve got a feeling that we will continue to focus on that going forward.”
To that end, DOCJT has reached out to the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development.
“Meghan Martin will be coming to DOCJT, and she did a wonderful job in the first class in June,” he said.
Martin is an Academic and Behavioral Response to Intervention (ABRI) liaison at UofL, and her insight is valuable, according to Eckler.
“ABRI is structured to provide state-wide access to support with the emphasis on creating an infrastructure toward sustainability and capacity building within schools and educational cooperatives,” according to the program’s website. “The goal is both to increase capacity in Kentucky and to evaluate academic and social outcomes for students across the state.”
Another major player is Trauma-Informed Action.
“We are working together with the schools to try and help the child,” Eckler said. “This is something where we’re crossing over into a different type of training, but it’s something (officers) need.”
Ultimately, school safety is the name of the game, and the updated curriculum reflects the reality of SROs, Eckler said.
“Dealing with an active shooter is something nobody wants to talk about,” he said. “We do have to talk about it, and we have to train because there is a reality,” he said. “We’re going to do all we can to make schools safer.”
Not Remedial Training
One of the brushbacks Eckler has received is the connotation that the new SRO training covers subject matter current SROs have taken at one time or another.
“It’s sad, but we indeed have some SROs who are a little aggravated because they’re thinking of it in terms of going back and starting all over,” he said. “This isn’t starting all over. This is adding to the training that they’ve already had. We’re just taking it up a notch to the next level.
“(Commissioner Payne) took this information to Frankfort, they came back with Senate Bill 1, and said SROs would have to go through Level I, Level II and Level III,” Eckler continued. “They put DOCJT in charge of the training, the officers will go there to receive their training, and they will receive one training per year.”
Those going through the different levels of SRO training will also satisfy the 40 hours of KLEC-approved training, so, over three years, SROs will receive 120 hours of training and come out as a certified SRO.
Eckler said much of the hesitation comes with the phrases Level I, Level II and Level III.
“We just called it Level I, Level II and Level III for the lack of another thing to call it,” he said. “It got tagged with that, and we didn’t think anything about it.”
Using the analogy of Academy of Police Supervision as an example, Eckler said officers are already SROs before coming to class. However, the training they receive will make them that much better.
“It’s kind of like our sergeant’s academy,” Eckler explained. “They were sergeants when they came in, but they are a more qualified sergeant when they come out. The same is true with SROs. They were SROs when they came in, but more qualified when they finish because of the training.”
The classes must be taken in order, and officers can only take one SRO class per year because of the demand.
Remaining Level I SRO training dates for 2019:
Oct. 25-Nov. 1
There will be 10 Level I classes taught in 2020, along with seven Level II classes at dates to be determined.