School Resource Officers: Beyond the Viral Videos

I am a police officer, currently serving as the School Resource Officer in the town of Middlebury, Vermont. The last year has been tremendously difficult for me. In addition to the endemic demands of my position, there has been a national barrage of outrage directed toward law enforcement in the wake of numerous allegations of excessive force and brutality, often with attendant videos capturing the confrontations. Many of these cases have been controversial, and I find my perspective similarly fractured. I’m deeply disturbed by the ferocity of the scenes and troubled by the potential racism that may fester at their root — while at the same time I recognize the phenomenal burden of being an officer expected to act with flawless poise under heightened circumstances, and I see how limited a glimpse many of these grainy, de-contextualized clips offer into tangled, multifaceted situations. I’m left harboring a mixture of shame, sympathy, and despair — at the events themselves and the responses, which frequently seem more inflammatory than constructive.

This was rendered intensely personal when the video of the Resource Officer in the Columbia, South Carolina, school recently surfaced. The Sheriff’s Deputy is seen pulling a female student out of her chair and throwing her across the classroom floor. The incident fueled debate about the use of force and racial bias, but also brought into question the very notion of having police in schools. I’ve read articles suggesting that the rise of School Resource Officers in the US is propelling us toward a bleak, dystopic future akin to that depicted in Orwell’s 1984. Even commentators who don’t suggest an inevitable descent into tyranny, cast a shadow upon the practice which is sharply incongruous with my experience.

The images of violence in this and other videos and the criticisms they have provoked contradict both my sense of being a School Resource Officer and the convictions that led me to pursue it. Of course, my career path is unconventional. Prior to embarking upon a career in law enforcement, I was a hippie. I lived on a commune and divided my time between building fairy-style follies in my back garden, sitting on hillsides writing philosophical nature poetry, and attending interminable meetings with my hippie comrades, struggling to come to consensus on such topics as whether we should restore a dilapidated shed or allow hormone-drenched teenagers to congregate unattended at the swimming lake. Since becoming an officer my life has changed in many ways — I no longer wear my lustrous hair in braided pigtails, I eat decidedly less barbecued roadkill at potlucks, and I shower a little more often than I used to. In contrast, my core values remain unchanged. I was drawn to the commune by a desire to connect with my neighbors and exercise a meaningful, positive influence upon my community — and that was precisely what inspired me to become a police officer. In this respect, I am not unusual. I am convinced that most officers are motivated by similar impulses.

It might also be suggested that Middlebury is not representative — it’s a small town, and the crime rate is remarkably low. Though I acknowledge, we do not have delinquency on the same scale as economically depressed communities in large cities, we do struggle with many of the same fundamental issues — principally, chronic poverty, mental health and addiction. The vast majority of the students I regularly interact with are beset by some combination of these afflictions, and I suspect this is true for Resource Officers serving populations across the demographic spectrum.

Placing the focus entirely upon inner city schools besieged by serious crime may even be fundamentally misleading. It is often assumed that the rise in popularity of Resource Officers is a direct response to an increase in school violence, especially mass casualty events, such as Columbine and subsequent high profile shootings. In fact the frequency of violent crime and homicide in schools has been steadily decreasing since the early 1990s. I would venture the strategy has been embraced more as a preventative measure allied with Community Policing than as a response tactic. Law enforcement suffered a crisis of credibility in the civil rights era, generated by discriminatory and oppressive practices and reinforced through the militarization of departments in the 70s and 80s. This led some agencies and analysts to radically re-examine the role of police, and studies conclusively showed that engagement with citizens has a profound positive impact upon crime and people’s sense of social wellbeing. In the 1990s the community-based approach began to build momentum, and now the majority of departments are actively striving to foster support within the towns they serve through increased involvement. The balance is shifting from an adversarial to a cooperative paradigm.

Despite these efforts, the image of police remains tarnished. Police are consistently depicted in the media as intellectually and emotionally primitive sluggards, prone to acts of barbaric violence. Even for those with a more nuanced perspective, the negative associations are reproduced with such frequency and consistency, it’s almost impossible to avoid their influence. I confess, even now when I think of police, the first image that flashes through my mind is that of a man lying on a Los Angeles highway being beaten by uniformed officers. This is probably the case for many of my peers — I imagine this generation is currently formulating its own iconic representations.

Of course, the truth of policing lies somewhere between the noble ideal of harmonious integration, and the caricature of the dull-witted, morally impoverished officer oppressing the marginalized and beating confessions out of the innocent.

As I reflect upon my career as an officer, there are certainly dull-witted decisions that haunt me, but those are balanced against many more experiences of connection. I recall a teenager in crisis, raging and screaming. I sat with him, quietly awaiting a pause, and then told him about the time I fashioned a small shelf, methodically employing my limited carpentry skills until I’d created what I judged to be a masterwork of form and function. I took the fruit of my long labor and attempted to affix it to the wall, but the stud-less drywall refused to hold a nail, and all my efforts were thwarted. I told the student, now listening attentively, how I grew so frustrated I smashed the shelf to splinters with my hammer. He laughed at my destructive tantrum, parallel in many ways to his own anger. His hostility evaporated, and we were soon engrossed in an animated conversation.

Such moments are by no means unusual. My workday as a Resource Officer might begin at the high school, greeting students as they arrive, gently teasing a troublesome teen about finding him huddled under a secluded railway bridge the previous afternoon after fleeing from school. Then, perhaps, I’ll make a classroom appearance, reading Yertle the Turtle to kindergarteners, or talking to 4th graders about overcoming their fears (or heeding them as the situation demands), delighting them with the tale of the time I was paralyzed with terror upon encountering a van full of clowns in a remote part of town on the night shift. I’m called upon to discuss safe internet use with 6th graders, alcohol and drugs in middle school health class and conduct presentations of forensics in a high school English class about detective literature. If it’s a Wednesday I’ll serve as a literacy mentor with a struggling 5th grade student, and if it’s a Friday I’ll host my feisty middle school Men’s Group. Lunches are spent in the school cafeteria, talking with students about anything, from the upcoming dance and their dating woes, to their father’s immanent release from prison. In between, I might be called upon to endure an administrative meeting, or assist with a mediation between two high school girls who slung the most despicable invective at each other on Facebook because one flirted with the other’s boyfriend. I might post a selfie with a student on my Officer Mason Twitter account, or talk with a guidance counselor about a student contemplating self-harm because she’s enmeshed in an abusive relationship. I might even be called upon to investigate a crime, almost all of which will result in a restorative rather than punitive outcome. In my four years working as a Resource Officer I’ve never been compelled to use a weapon on a student, I’ve only once grappled physically with a student, and I’ve only twice placed a student in handcuffs.

My days are a rich tapestry of engagement — which is precisely how the position was conceived by the schools, the Town and the Police Department when it was created. Still, I am frequently amazed by the willingness of students to accept me, and welcome me into their world. Perhaps the most surprising route to connection has been the process of arrest. It is so often conceived as a humiliating, terrifying experience, which it certainly can be, but there’s another dimension to it that’s almost never portrayed — a bizarre and powerful intimacy. It is often adversarial. I’m perceived by the student as the root of the problem and the instrument of their suffering, but, at the same time, I’m the person who’s there as the emotional impact unfolds.

I frequently find myself in the position of confidant. I’m looked to for support. Sometimes, after the insults have been hurled, a peculiar bond develops, and I learn about a child’s struggle with abuse or neglect, or their first fumbling forays into romance, resulting in pain and degradation. I hear tales of loneliness, grief and, and, all too often, self-loathing. I see students at their most vulnerable. But though I am implacably holding them accountable for their actions, I don’t believe they’re essentially bad. Seeing this, they are often moved to permit me a privileged glimpse into their brokenness. It amazes me that through such a basic demonstration of kindness, trust and respect can be established with people in situations that are conceived as fundamentally hostile. It is a compelling affirmation of the power of compassion.

I realize that the debate about the role of police is national in scope, and these are personal reflections, but they serve to illustrate the direction in which many departments are moving — a direction frequently exemplified in school-based positions. These positions tend to be dedicated explicitly to challenging negative preconceptions and building constructive relationships. In assessing the merit of School Resource Officers in general it is important to keep in mind that their primary function is typically not to enforce the law in some draconian sense, but to help heal some of the damage they encounter in their communities, often by reaching out to the most maltreated members of the population.

In many ways we are living through a revolution in the structure and purpose of policing — not a cataclysmic event, but a slow transformation accomplished through hard work and an evolving, broader sense of decency and justice. As a part of this process I am called upon to demonstrate humanity in the face of anger and abuse, and to acknowledge the inherent dignity of people who have been stripped of every last shred of it. It’s a daily challenge to maintain composure and meet these demands. When I fall short I expect to be held accountable, but I also hope to receive the support and encouragement of my neighbors as I work towards these goals. If this vision is to be realized more fully in our society, we must appreciate those who are striving to promote it, in our schools, in our police departments and in our criminal justice system, so often the target of zealous defamation. Yes, we must expose those who abuse their authority, but we must honor the integrity of those who don’t. As I think about my community and my nation, I am struck by the flaws, but more so I am encouraged by the direction in which I see us moving, and I am filled with hope for the future. My days are often hard — I’m frequently confused by deeply ambiguous situations, and rendered heartsick by the suffering I witness and cannot remedy, but every day there is beauty, and every day I am inspired by the courage of the young people I serve and awed by the dedication of the gifted adults with whom I work.