Curt Lavarello has over 24 years experience in the field of school-based policing. It doesn’t take him long to identify the top three critical elements of a successful School Resource Officer (SRO) program:
- Complete agency commitment to the program from the chief/sheriff and throughout all areas of the agency;
- The selection and training of the right persons to serve as SROs; and
- Continuous collaboration of the school administration and law enforcement, at both the management and line levels.
Veteran SRO Expert a Leader in School-Based Policing
Curt entered the School Resource Officer Program in North Lauderdale, Florida, as the city’s first SRO in 1986. In 1988, he was recognized as Broward County’s SRO of the Year.
Curt went to work in 1990 for the Palm Beach County School District Police Department. In 1994, he became the Coordinator for Palm Beach County’s first Youth Court Program, which went on to be recognized on national TV.
His leadership in school-based policing grew, serving as regional director for the Florida Association of School Resource Officers (FASRO). In 1990, Curt founded the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) and rose from 2nd vice president to president of that organization. In 1998, he was hired as the second Executive Director of NASRO and during his tenure brought membership to its highest level at 18,000 members and a 1.5 million dollar budget.
In 2005, Curt and then-NASRO President, Sean Burke, formed the School Safety Advocacy Council (SSAC), a Florida-based organization designed to advocate for national school safety issues. SSAC provides training to SROS, as well as for school administrators and other first responders.
Factors Leading to Deteriorated or Failed SRO Programs
“Over the years I have witnessed a number of SRO programs across the nation fail terribly and in most cases it is because of the lack of policies, procedures, and communication on programmatic goals related to the SRO program,” Curt said.
Curt says he has also seen programs fail simply due to the selection of the wrong officer to serve as the SRO.
“Lets face it, not every law enforcement officer desires or has the skills to ride a police motorcycle or, to serve as a K-9 officer or member of the SWAT Team. Well, the same holds true for SROs and just like other programs in law enforcement, if the program does not have the right person who is committed to the goals of that program, the possibility for programmatic failure is high,” he stressed.
Curt also attributed high turnover in the SRO position as an area of concern. Many agencies have an automatic rotation policy where the SRO automatically rotates out every two or three years, even if the SRO if performing well and is well-liked by school administration, according to Curt.
Much like the role of detective, it takes around two years for SROs to begin seeing the fruits of their hard work and effort. Bonding with the students is critical to the success of the program, and that mutual respect comes from years of experience, Curt noted.
School District Law Enforcement Agencies
Curt sees in-house school district police departments as popular and growing rapidly across the nation. He attributes much of this rapid growth as coming on the heels of law enforcement budget cuts and the end of the federal COPS in Schools grants.
“Road patrol will always be the priority of a fully functional law enforcement agency and that is how it should be. However, school districts are often left with few options if the local police or sheriff pulls their officers out of the schools,” Curt says.
School districts have the option of hiring private security, which often provides guards with minimum training and people skills, according to Curt. They could also go without any security, although school administrators are increasing realizing the liability in the event of a critical incident.
In states already permitting school districts to house their own police departments, this usually emerges as the best option, Curt says.
Once a police agency is fully functional in the school district, most school police administrators prefer it to operate as a true law enforcement agency where internal politicized interference does not occur. One of the areas that can contribute to such as climate, and to overall successful school policing, is when the school police chief or director reports directly to the superintendent, especially given some of the criminal complaints and investigations could become very political in a school setting.
Curt says benefits of a school district police department include having an agency where its officers are, “100% committed to student and staff safety, and they won’t get pulled out of the school due to road patrol needs elsewhere in the broader community,” Curt said.
“School crime underreporting is typically higher among school district police agencies because many districts view law enforcement reports, arrests, and police activities as a negative, so many incidents go unreported,” Curt said.
“I know of no police academy that prepares and officer to work in the school setting. And officers who fail to recognize there is a HUGE difference between policing the streets and policing a school hallway need to reevaluate their desire to work as an SRO,” Curt stressed.
“The future appears to be headed toward school district police departments and, away from contract sheriff and police departments. There are, however, still many sheriffs and police chiefs who see the benefits that a well-functioning SRO program can have for their agency, so they place the SRO program high on their list of priorities,” Curt said.