Training law enforcement officers to work with children is no simple task.
But it is now required by Pennsylvania.
This week, the Neshannock Township School District is hosting a 40-hour, five-day training session in partnership with the National Association of School Resource Officers. Some 31 school resource officers are attending. According to district officials, Neshannock is the first in this area to offer the training, which became mandatory July 2 when Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law Senate Bill 621. The legislation strengthens the comprehensive School Safety and Security Law signed last year.
Proposed by state Sen. Mike Regan of Cumberland and York counties, the new legislation allows sheriffs and deputy sheriffs — who were omitted from earlier legislation —to serve as school resource officers. The new law also allows schools the option to choose to have armed school security guards.
Association instructor Joseph Kozarian commended Bob Shaffer of Shaffer Security, which provides school resource officers for the district, for anticipating passage of the legislation and offering the training class within days of Wolf's signing the bill into law.
Shaffer said he began planning the session about two months ago.
"School officers have six months to get certified," Shaffer said.
"At one time," he went on, "police officers who carried weapons needed only Act 235 certification under the Lethal Weapons Training Act. School resource officers now not only need weapons certification, they need to know community policing, and they must be able to deal with children. That is very different from the police work they may be accustomed to, even if they've had years of experience as a police officer."
Kozarian noted that the new law establishes a baseline of training for all school security personnel — armed or not — to ensure that school police officers, resource officers and security guards are trained to work in school settings alongside students.
School-based policing is one of the fastest-growing areas of law enforcement, he said.
"We focus on working with children and their perceptions," he said. "We focus on teenager brain development, conflict resolution among adolescents and teens and mental health issues and special needs students.
"In addition to knowing law enforcement, we train them to be mentors to the students and to try to prevent students from entering the juvenile justice system," Kozarian said. "The Department of Justice has called this type of training the Gold Standard. A lot of states have adopted this system for schools."
The mentoring aspect is important, he said, so that the student understands that someone cares and will listen to them, and so the SRO understands where a student's concerns lie and what they consider threatening to their or others' safety.
Kozarian noted that the school resource officer program began in the 1950s. It has been a national organization for 27 years.
Shaffer said participants in this week's program include police and resource officers from Erie, West Virginia, Ohio, and the Washington, D.C., area, as well as the local school districts of Wilmington, Union, Neshannock, New Castle, West Middlesex and Greenville.
"Everyone needs this training," he said, "whether the district has its own police department, employs security guards or brings in police officers. Anyone who deals with children must be certified."
The mission of the National Association of School Resource Officers is to provide quality training to school-based law enforcement officers to promote safer schools and safer kids.
The organization, founded in 1991, works in partnership with school security and safety professionals, students, faculty and staff. Training SROs to be educators and counselors/mentors as well as law enforcement officers provides students with a positive image of law enforcement. It also creates a safe learning environment to resolve problems affecting youth, minimizes dangerous situations on or near campus and promotes awareness of law enforcement efforts to ensure peaceful operation of school-related programs and build support with students.
Elementary principal Matt Heasley, school safety and security coordinator for the Neshannock district for the past 12 years, noted that while security is essential, "We don't want to lose sight of the fact that we're still a school. Everyone wants a safer environment, but we have parents who come in on a regular basis for carnivals, egg hunts, and our Halloween parade. We want to be safe but we don't want to bar parents and grandparents from the school."