Security within our schools is everyone’s responsibility. Administrators, staff, students, and parents must take an “all hands on deck” approach to make sure that the schools and everyone within its walls are safe.
In a quickly changing world with new challenges facing us almost every day, school security is an ever-evolving practice. One of the ways I believe schools can bolster their security efforts while having the most flexibility to address these changing needs is by hiring a School Security Officer, or SSO.
Many of the concepts and ideas presented in this blog come from our close association and work with Major Security Consulting and Design, LLC. Mike Jones, company president, has a wealth of insight and experience in all aspects of school security.
A School Security Officer is employed by the local school board for the purpose of maintaining order and discipline, preventing crime, investigating violations of school board policies, and detaining students suspected of violating the law or school board policies. An SSO is usually not a sworn law enforcement officer but is highly trained and works in tandem with law enforcement and school administration to ensure the safety, security, and welfare of all students, faculty, staff, and visitors, both on school property and at school-sponsored events.
As a former law enforcement officer myself, and as a school safety assessor, I can attest to the valuable roles an SSO plays within a school and as a liaison with public safety officials. As part of my assessment work, I have had the honor of working closely with Mike Jones, President of Major Security Consulting and Design, LLC. Mr. Jones has been instrumental in providing many of the insights contained within this blog and has helped form my understanding of the importance of SSOs to school safety.
Schools must be prepared to provide for everyday safety and to face the possibility of a critical school incident involving death, significant injury, and/or facility disruption. The SSO plays a critical role in both prevention and mitigation. They are trained in the discipline of school security, understand the psycho-social dynamics of their student population, and provide a very important link between groups both within the school and outside of the school. It is my hope that SSOs will be an integral part of every school district in the not-too-distant future.
Five Key Components of an SSO Program
So what are some of the keys to implementing a successful SSO program? Below are five critical components to have in place as SSOs are introduced into your schools.
- Centralized Structure with Adequate Staffing: School Security Officers require a centralized structure to implement and oversee the program across a district or group of districts. Therefore, the funding and oversight for the SSO program should be done at the state or county level so that the highest standards can be maintained across schools within a district. SSOs are generally hired by a county’s Board of Education and assigned to schools within the district as needed.
A centralized command structure for SSOs allows for consistency in training, policy and procedures, performance, equipment, and attire. In most school districts in the U.S., the SSO program is funded by the Board of Education, often via a grant. The head of the program should be an Assistant Superintendent for Security and Emergency Services (SES) or similar title. This individual would have the primary responsibility for coordinating with school principals and overseeing the implementation and performance of the program.
Ideally, there should be at least one SSO in every school within the district. For secondary education levels, a best practice would be to employ one SSO per every 500 students within the school, or more for schools with high risk factors. The training, management, and regulation of SSOs requires a dedicated supervisor, or supervisors, who are versed in the rules, regulations, expectations, and policies involving school security.
- Identifiable attire: SSOs should be provided with distinctive uniforms that are standardized from school to school. This will help the SSOs identify as a group and provide the ability to clearly identify the security personnel in each school.
While it may seem a bit stark, orange is the new beacon of school security. Experts recommend that the SSO uniform should include a bright orange, heavy-duty shirt with reflective lettering on the back and front left chest pocket. It is also recommended that the SSO uniform kit include four short-sleeved shirts, four long-sleeved shirts, winter coat, raincoat, two baseball caps, nylon duty belt with belt keepers, key ring, pair of black duty sneakers, pair of black duty boots, pair of duty gloves, black belt, first aid kit, Narcan pouch, flashlight and holder, and an officer’s name tag. This attire would allow the SSO to be clearly identifiable and visible, but would be less police-like or military in nature. The SSO should be able to be spotted for both preventive reasons as well as to assist those in need. In addition, wearing bright orange serves as a “force multiplier” when multiple SSOs respond to a school incident or gather at an outside event, such as a football game or school dance.
- Comprehensive Training: Certification is the first step for an SSO. Individual states provide resources and steps on the certification process. For example, the Commonwealth of Virginia provides information through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS). Certification for SSOs within Virginia is valid for two years.
Once certified and assigned to a school, SSOs should participate in ongoing education, known as in-service training, on at least an annual basis. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, SSOs are required to receive 16 hours of school security-related training every two years with documentation and a recertification application submitted to DCJS for renewal of the certification.
School Security Officers may at times become involved in the restraint of a student. Regulations require that anyone who is authorized to use any type of force on students must be professionally trained in a program such as Handle with Care. If such training has not been provided and an incident requires hands-on assistance from an SSO, there is a higher risk of civil liability.
At least 50% of SSOs should also be trained in threat management as a specialty. These personnel should be included on all school threat assessment teams.
Some school districts may decide it’s important to have an armed SSO. Each school district should follow their state guidelines on who is eligible to carry a firearm. The Commonwealth of Virginia considers this possibility for some retired law enforcement officers who have completed a training course provided by a federal, state, or local law enforcement agency. Such training must include active shooter emergency response protocol, emergency evacuation procedure, and threat assessment.
Equipment for an armed officer should include a firearm, holster, magazine and pouches, and ballistic vest. Ammunition for duty use should be supplied and each armed SSO should be required to qualify on a police firing range four times per year, in addition to the SSO meeting all necessary certification requirements.
- The Right Equipment: Coverage and Communication: Each school that has an SSO should have a dedicated security control area with large CCTV monitors to keep an eye on the ebb and flow of activity both inside and outside of the school. The security control area should be easily accessible by a staff member and/or security, but not visible to visitors or students in the school. A best practice is to have a dedicated room for this function.
All SSOs should be equipped with a tablet that provides access to security videos while patrolling the school property. This is especially important for schools that employ only one SSO. Having a tablet allows the SSO to have eyes on multiple areas of the school at the same time.
- SSOs should also be provided with a radio system that has three radio channels – one for the SSO’s assigned school, a second to reach all schools if necessary, and a third for tactical communication that would allow SSOs to work special events, such as a football game that requires communicating with SSOs or administration from other schools. Each principal should have an identical radio for use during emergencies.
The radio is the most efficient way to communicate in the school. A “security use only” radio ensures that communications can occur without delay or interruption.
- Written Policy Manual: Policies and procedures are designed to guide all major decisions, actions, and principles of an organization in a clear and consistent manner. A policy clearly states what the management of your organization expects, while a procedure is a detailed description of how the policy should be carried out.
Clear written policies and procedures are a key part of any SSO program. Schools must follow federal protection laws, such as the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). SSOs must abide by these laws as well. A detailed policy manual will provide guidance towards job description, employee expectations, appropriate responses for specific incidents, and privacy regulations designed to protect students. The contents of the policy manual should be clearly communicated and adhered to with all security personnel. The manual should be updated as often as necessary to comply with federal, state, and local regulations and to incorporate any lessons learned or new initiatives that will strengthen the SSO program.
Remember the reason security is necessary
School violence is a scary reality in today’s world. School safety requires a proactive and integrated approach. While schools work to promote a welcoming environment, they must also work to provide the safest environment possible for students, staff, and visitors. I believe a well-structured and consistently implemented SSO program will help keep schools on the front line in anticipating threats and keeping schools safe and conducive to learning. Sometimes it seems like the weight of the world is on our shoulders when it comes to protecting our children. As schools and parents work together to implement security measures, we can share in this responsibility and provide an environment where students can truly thrive.