After months of work, the Michigan School Safety Task Force has presented a set of recommendations to Governor Rick Snyder. In April, the governor directed the group to review and modify best practices that school districts can use to protect their students and staff. One goal of the task force is to create a standard curriculum for training school resource officers.
From the moment you see him, Dale Person makes an impression. Well over six feet tall with a ready smile, he strides through Everett High School with an easy rapport towards everyone he meets.
His disarming demeanor makes you forget he’s armed…and that’s the point. Lansing Police Officer Dale Person wants you to see him as exactly that: a person.
He wears khakis and a navy blue polo. The kids don’t see his tin badge…for a reason.
“A lot of times, them seeing ‘hard blue,’ they maybe think about some of the negative interactions they’ve had on the road or outside in the public or whatever,” says Person. “So, now we wear a polo shirt and soft pants. It will make them think we’re more approachable.”
To call Dale Person approachable is an understatement. When we sit down in his office to talk, it’s not long before someone comes knocking. A couple of students want a police sticker, and Person is happy to oblige.
“The number one goal of an SRO is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth,” says Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). The organization trains veteran police to be that liaison. It’s not a job for everyone, but Canady says an SRO uses a technique every good patrol officer knows well.
“Officers on the street use a lot of informal counseling in dealing with situations, which includes de-escalation; you know, de-escalating a tense situation,” says Canady.
In high school, tension can arise anywhere…whether it’s in class or on the court. Dale Person knows how to cool down athletes, too. Before he was an SRO, Person coached Everett football for a decade.
Person uses those informal counseling skills every day. He says students often confide in him about problems they don’t know how to handle at home.
“Believe it or not, they will talk to you and tell you exactly what it is they’re dealing with,” he says. “So, a lot of times I’m a listening ear, but then, I’ll flip it around and say, OK, from a parent’s perspective…this is what they’re seeing. And a lot of times when you do that and you come at them from that perspective, they’ll say, OK. I get it.”
Person also spends some of his time in the classroom, often as a guest speaker.
But an SRO, of course, is more than a mentor or a lecturer.
Schools also need a cop.
That’s particularly vital in a life-threatening situation, like a mass shooting. There have been at least 65 gun-related incidents in schools since the start of 2018.
“A school resource officer is uniquely situated in that they are probably there alone in the beginning of that event,” says Tim Bourgeois. The executive director of the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) led the state task force subcommittee on school resource officers.
“That’s a different response than coming from a patrol situation where you may be responding with multiple other officers,” says Bourgeois.
After a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida last February, the SRO on duty was widely criticized for not entering the building. Officer Scot Peterson claimed he had no real-time information to determine where the shots were coming from. Peterson resigned shortly after the incident.
At Everett High School, Officer Dale Person thinks about that eventuality a lot.
“I would want to be able to be there for them in that type of situation, no matter what,” Person says. “Because the feeling of those kids could be the same feeling that my child has, and I would want them to know that there’s somebody that’s out there willing to protect them and render aid if it’s needed. So, that’s how I look at doing my job.”
Preparing for the day every officer prays will never come is part of a school resource officer’s training. Now, with recommendations in hand, Michigan officials can begin to create a standard curriculum for every SRO in the state.
In his final days in office, Governor Rick Snyder will review the findings of the Michigan School Safety Task Force. But ultimately, it will be up to his successor, Governor-Elect Gretchen Whitmer, to carry them out.