Students often stop to speak to their school’s resource officer (SRO) as she walks the halls of Pine Ridge Middle School in Naples, Florida. Seventh graders routinely ask Corporal Sandra Sprenger of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, “When is our next ethics class?” Their enthusiasm for the mini-course, Ethics for Young Adults, is shared by members of the faculty, command staff of the sheriff’s office, and community stakeholders of Pine Ridge.
Law enforcement officers on assignment to middle level schools can be an often-untapped resource among school leaders who foster the development of student ethical character.
Depending on the school district, state requirements, and law enforcement jurisdictions, SROs receive specialized training for their school assignment. The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the largest training organization for school-based policing, advocates that law enforcement officers chosen for school assignment are “properly selected and properly trained,” according to Kerri Williamson, NASRO’s training director. NASRO also encourages careful thought for the “right fit” of an officer and a school.
NASRO’s basic training for school resource officers includes several topics that are relevant to teaching ethics or character in middle grades, including the personal and professional ethics of the SRO, effective teaching and guest speaking, informal counseling and mentoring, diversity, teen brain development, substance abuse, and social media.
School officers also may receive training and even certification to teach programs like DARE and bully prevention. Many officers have educational backgrounds and experience that qualify them to be part of a school’s character education team. Many simply have a natural temperament to connect with young adolescents appropriately and effectively.
Middle level leaders should reach out to local law enforcement officers or SROs as partners in character education and ethics programs. Here are 10 opportunities that local law enforcement officers and SROs might take to demonstrate support for the development of ethical character in your students and in your community.
10 Strategic Opportunities
SROs routinely perform many of the activities listed here. These activities have the potential to strengthen the teaching of ethics; influence positive school culture; and establish interpersonal connections.With the support of the school leadership, the SRO can:
1. Stand out as a role model. Instruction in ethics and character is more often caught than taught—researchers in moral development call it the “hidden curriculum.” Many students follow the example of the personable, respectful officer they see every day.
2. Serve informally as a mentor. Every student on campus needs at least one responsible adult to turn to for help with a problem or dilemma. Some students will make that connection with the school resource officer.
3. Reiterate the school’s core values. The school’s mission statement and monthly character themes suggest core ethical values that require regular reiteration by all school leaders. The SRO can guide students to sound decision making and positive relationships with others by articulating these values.
4. Be alert to “teachable moments.” Some of the most effective teaching on ethics and character at school occurs serendipitously. The SRO may be one of a handful of school leaders circulating around the campus during the day and seeing students in their natural habitat, reminding them of school values and commending those who exemplify them.
5. Participate in classroom teaching. A qualified law enforcement officer can enrich many subjects as a guest speaker and offer unique short courses over several weeks. NASRO emphasizes participation in classroom life, and programs like DARE certify trained officers to teach its programs. Character issues are key themes in such programs as the prevention of substance abuse and bullying.
6. Share at assemblies. Whatever the venue and whatever the purpose of the gathering, the SRO can try to incorporate at least one reference to a core personal or community value.
7. Participate on the school’s character education planning team. An SRO can bring a new perspective to student or community needs for guidance, behavior, and decision making by sharing areas of need for and new approaches to character education.
8. Attend a student leadership meeting. If student government meetings are open to faculty, the SRO may attend as an interested, concerned stakeholder and gain a new understanding of student concerns, many with implications for positive school culture and interpersonal connections.
9. Encourage the values of good sportsmanship. Many SROs assist with coaching or at least support student athletic teams. The SRO can make a major contribution to overall character development by stressing the principles of good sportsmanship.
10. Participate in teacher professional development opportunities. Include the SRO in teacher inservice training related to character development, guidance, behavior, prevention programs, and school culture.
Here are four ways your SRO might specifically teach ethics and character traits in the classroom.
1. Curricula for an SRO-led course in ethics. Much existing curricula in fields such as character education, social skills, and human development target younger or older grades, “stretching” the material up or down for middle school application. As a result, some law enforcement agencies create their own instructional material for the middle grades.
For example, Sergeant Bill Russell of the Irvine (CA) Police commissioned his middle school officer, former middle school teacher Rick Gramer, to create lessons specifically geared for positive development of young adolescents in the Irvine Unified School District. The result was SEAMS—Student Empowerment at Middle Schools.
The Middle Grades Ethics Project likewise has created instructional programs “from scratch,” based on the specific developmental profile of young adolescents, including Ethics for Young Adults, the course Corporal Sprenger teaches at Pine Ridge Middle School in Naples, Florida. (You can access the curriculum at http://ethicsinthemiddle.org.)
2. Ethics and character themes for guest speaking in classrooms. SROs frequently visit classrooms at the invitation of a teacher who has a specific theme or subject in mind. Perhaps the focus is the Bill of Rights or the effects of marijuana on the developing brain. The Middle Grades Ethics Project designed our SRO edition of Ethics for Young Adults lessons to serve as stand-alone presentations as well as components for a complete course.
3. Programs taught by law enforcement in schools nationwide. In some middle level schools, topics may include bullying prevention, drug and alcohol resistance, Internet safety, conflict resolution, and ethics. Sometimes, a course is co-taught by the SRO and the classroom teacher.
4. Your school’s existing character education program. You may find lessons in your current character or ethics education program that would be a good fit for the SRO or a representative of local law enforcement to address as a guest speaker or as a member of the teaching team.
Fostering sound development in ethical character for middle level students and schools requires a comprehensive team approach that includes parents, community stakeholders, and school personnel. You may want to welcome a qualified law enforcement officer on campus to the faculty team.
Photo credit: iStock.com/SteveDebenport