The year 2020 has presented education leaders with a series of challenges that spurred policymakers and school districts to rethink all areas of our education system. Normal has been upended. Education leaders face a reality where administrators, teachers, and students are unsure when normal will return.

In the area of school resource officers (SROs), school board members and district leadership confront an ongoing balancing act of adopting a structure where they can meet the needs and expectations of their communities, students, and staff. Constructing a safe and healthy education environment will require us to rethink how we should proceed.

School board members are entrusted by our communities with the responsibility to ensure good governance. Part of this process is taking the time to listen to our communities’ needs, concerns, and thoughts. This is especially true when it comes to the evolving role of SROs in our schools.

The realities of the past year present us with new challenges for engaging our communities and ensuring that we create clear policies and expectations for SROs that help promote the goals of the communities that we serve. Add in the ongoing critical discussions and expressions of concerns by students and communities surrounding racial equality and justice, and it becomes clear that board members have the responsibility to address these issues when adopting policies for the use or expansion of SROs in their districts.

To help address these issues surrounding SROs and their role in our schools, board members should take into consideration such things as how to evaluate the success of SROs, elements of a strong contract and collaboration with local law enforcement, the need for specific training of SROs, and whether goals are based on areas of external threats to students or internal safety issues.

The Fort Worth School Board is working on constraints in SRO contracts to prioritize the mental well-being of students and educators. By having this contract language, the district brings in additional resources to supplement the focus on health and mental health services.

At the same time, school board members are facing the economic realities of pandemic-induced budgeting dilemmas. Most districts pay for SROs through district funding sources, outside grant funding, or a combination of both. With the potential loss of significant funding due to COVID-19, boards may face the difficult process to fully fund SROs and other aspects of safety, including school nurses and mental health professionals. These decisions on the allocation of limited resources will challenge boards to adopt budgets that reflect the values and priorities of their communities. As school board members confront the challenge of creating safe and secure education environments and fully funding those and their traditional programming costs, setting clear goals and expectations for the use of SROs will be crucial.

Beyond budgeting challenges, there is a moral responsibility to take deliberate action to address SROs on campus and how they impact students. Even before the social justice movements of 2020, growing data demonstrated disproportionate discipline rates for Black and brown students. For many students, the presence of uniformed SROs is not reassuring. SROs can trigger traumatic and stressful emotions. To ignore the data and a growing expression of students and their communities to policymakers to address these disparities will do little to create a safe and secure education environment.

As school board members, we both have engaged on the issues of racial justice with our communities, staff, and students. In Fort Worth, Texas, Board President Ramos has used his career experience as a gang intervention specialist and juvenile probation officer to understand the importance of focusing resources, including SROs, on intervention and prevention. Programming in Fort Worth ISD includes My Brother’s Keeper, where young boys of color work collaboratively with their community leaders, including some SROs, to tackle the challenges head-on. Courageous Conversations have helped create a space to have healthy dialogue on solutions in the community.

In Arizona, NSBA’s National Black Council of School Board Members Chair Devin Del Palacio uses his experiences to engage school board members on the importance of supporting the social and emotional needs of students and staff. We must acknowledge that for many of our Black, brown, and indigenous students and staff, seeing a uniformed officer triggers trauma. We must prioritize bringing in resources and partnerships to serve the whole needs of our students.

Del Palacio’s Tolleson Union High School District has partnered with grassroots groups and local nonprofits such as Speak Up Stand Up Save a Life and March for Our Lives to proactively meet the mental health needs of students. School board members should focus on prevention and not reaction when something happens. There is an old saying: “Show me your budget, and I will show you what your priorities are.” By having a participatory budget process, you allow the community and students to embrace the role of SROs and help set expectations.

To ensure success, school board members have the responsibility to fully address the issues often raised by communities, staff, and students about the presence of SROs on campus.

Jacinto Ramos Jr. is president of Texas’ Fort Worth ISD School Board and chair of the NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE). Devin Del Palacio is president of Arizona’s Tolleson Union High School Governing Board and chair of NSBA’s National Black Council of School Board Members (NBC).

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School districts rethink and reinvent education for their students, staff, and communities.