None of the Pine Bluff police officers who worked as school resource officers during the spring 2012 semester received any specialized training for those duties, an investigation by The Commercial revealed.
The Commercial requested information on the officers after an April incident at Jack Robey Junior High School. A resource officer at Robey sprayed pepper spray in a school hallway, resulting in three students going to the hospital and several others going home early.
Police Lt. JoAnn Bates said the four officers who worked in the Pine Bluff, Dollarway and Watson Chapel school districts are not certified school resource officers and are awaiting training conducted by the Arkansas Safe Schools Association in conjunction with the Criminal Justice Institute, a division of the University of Arkansas system.
The 40-hour course, referred to as SRO (School Resource Officer) 1, is offered free to law enforcement officers and school officials on an annual basis. The next course is scheduled in July at Little Rock.
Bates also said the four officers have experience levels ranging from 13 months to 50 months with the department.
“They’re just putting them out here and they haven’t had time to even establish themselves as police officers,” said Paul Jones, the director of security for the Watson Chapel School District. Jones is a former Pine Bluff police officer and worked as a resource officer at Watson Chapel.
According to Seth Blomeley, director of communications for the Arkansas Department of Education, there are no state laws, rules or guidelines concerning school resource officers, nor could he locate any federal regulations concerning SROs.
Retired Pine Bluff Police Lt. Richard Davies, now a part-time officer for the White Hall Police Department, is a past president and nine-year board member of the Arkansas Safe Schools Association. He is also a certified instructor for the school resource officer training course.
Davies said that while he agrees with Blomeley that it is not mandatory for officers working in schools to attend the training course, “I personally believe they should and am trying to make it happen.”
Davies was one of the first school resource officers in Pine Bluff and worked at Robey for several years. He said the job of a resource officer requires filling three roles: law enforcement officer, teacher, and counselor or adviser.
“They don’t really counsel but rather they talk to students about what’s right and wrong, what responsibilities they have, and can be sort of a buffer to parents, the school staff and others,” Davies said.
Resource officers also refer students to various community and social service programs if they’re needed.
Part of the training course calls for officers to develop and present lesson plans just as they would in a school setting, teaching classes on subjects like crime prevention, drug awareness, personal safety and other subjects.
Davies said the officers also have a law enforcement responsibility, enforcing laws and city ordinances, investigating criminal behavior and making arrests if needed.
“It’s basically like a triangle,” Davies said. “You have to do three jobs simultaneously.”
Both Jones and Steve Sumner, the coordinator of public service technology at Southeast Arkansas College and also a former Pine Bluff police officer and school resource officer said the practice of assigning officers to schools without providing them with specialized training goes against the basic concept of the program.
“You’ve got to have people who want to be there,” said Sumner, who also worked in the Watson Chapel School District. “When we started, we had to volunteer for the job, and had to have three to five years experience with the department before we would even be considered. We also had to go through the training course before we could get into the schools.”
“We’ve had officers who have been here who didn’t want to be here, and told school staff members they didn’t want to be here,” Jones said. “If they don’t want to be here, they’re not going to be able to do the job right.”
While none of the local school resource officers for the spring 2012 semester were certified, Bates said the department currently has 11 officers who have completed the Basic School Resource Officer class. Of those, four have been promoted, leaving seven that are working in other areas of the department.
Regarding the incident at Robey, Officer Anthony Brown said in a report that he sprayed a small amount of pepper spray in a corner of a hallway after students refused several verbal directives to go to their classrooms following the lunch period.
Brown’s supervisor, Sgt. Lynn Wright, said in a report that Brown did not follow department policy when he used the pepper spray.
Former Pine Bluff School Superintendent Jerry Payne said Brown was returned to the school after school officials had several meetings with police administrators, who said the matter would be addressed internally.
City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said Friday that whatever disciplinary action Brown might have received was not referred to her office and Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones did not return a message seeking comment.