Let’s Get Legal
Since it was signed into law on March 11, 2019, the School Safety and Resiliency Act (SB1) has spurred questions from school systems and police agencies regarding their part to play in Kentucky’s new initiative in keeping kids safe.
One specific topic emerging is school resource officers, as the bill reads that “local boards of education, school district superintendents, and local and state law enforcement agencies shall cooperate to assign one or more certified (SROs) to each school within a school district as funds and qualified personnel become available.” This leaves many asking, who can be an SRO? What is the definition of the job? And who will pay them?
First Things First
SB1, as well as Kentucky Revised Statue 158.441, defines an SRO as “a sworn law enforcement officer who has specialized training to work with youth at a school site.” Officers hired as SROs must fall into either one of two categories: either they are police officers employed by a law enforcement agency or a special law enforcement officer (SLEO), who must be commissioned by the secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet or their designee, under KRS 61.902, and then employed by the school district directly.
As commissioned officers, SLEO’s peace officer powers are a direct grant of authority to them and them alone. However, they are officers of limited jurisdiction whose powers are tied to the public property they protect and do not exist outside those parameters, explained Deaidra Douglas, Department of Criminal Justice Training Assistant General Counsel. Conversely, peace officer powers for law enforcement agency-hired officers derive from their employing department, just as is the case for any other officer within the same agency.
Based on the bill, law enforcement agencies are under no unilateral obligation to provide an SRO; rather, the agencies, school district superintendents, and local and state law enforcement agencies are required to “cooperate to assign one (1) or more certified school resource officers to each school within a school district as funds and qualified personnel become available.”
Regardless of their method of hire, according to law, all SROs must be Peace Officer Professional Standards (POPS) certified and obtain 40 hours mandatory, specialized training each year, said Douglas.
DOCJT recently expanded and enhanced SRO training and now offers three course levels. New topics include working with special-needs students, mental health awareness and trauma-informed action.
The Ties that Bind
When a law enforcement officer is hired to be an SRO, a contract or memorandum of understanding (MOU) must be in place between their employing agency and the school district.
“The contract should define your operational limits, boundaries and terms of service, the way any contract would,” said Douglas. “Specifically, SB1 requires that the MOU ‘specifically states the purpose of the school resource officer program and clearly defines the roles and expectations of each party involved in the program. The memorandum shall provide that the school resource officer shall not be responsible for school discipline matters that are the responsibility of school administrators or school employees.’”
But who pays? A standard structure allowing the schools to reimburse law enforcement agencies is often seen.
“A law enforcement agency may not be able to afford to dedicate one officer just to a school without extra funding coming in, but a school may have a grant or other funding source that allows them to support an SRO,” said Douglas. “They can reimburse a local police department as long as a MOU is in place, and they are compliant with all of their grant restrictions.”
Additionally, both agency-hired law enforcement officers and SLEOs are eligible for the Kentucky Law Enforcement Foundation Program Fund (KLEFPF) (an annual $4,000 annual salary supplement). However, all SB1 required MOU’s and other KLEFPF audit materials must be submitted to the KLEFPF compliance office whether the hiring agency is a school district or a law enforcement agency.
“It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds with any new legislation and not see the big picture,” said Douglas. “The big picture here is that we all want to protect our kids and provide a safe and welcoming environment for our students.”
Douglas then explained that the legislation’s goal is to not only have officers who have been trained in protecting kids when a shooter walks in the door, but also in dealing with them on an everyday basis, in being a mentor and in being a good role model.