Rep Shanley introduces legislation enabling the creation of ‘volunteer school security force’ SROs

Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick) just introduced House bill H6284, which would enable “the creation of a volunteer school security force” made up of retired police officers and ex-military.

Rhode Island News: Rep Shanley introduces legislation enabling the creation of ‘volunteer school security force’ SROs

April 21, 2023, 4:29 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick) just introduced House bill H6284, which would enable “the creation of a volunteer school security force” made up of retired police officers and ex-military. These volunteer School Resource Officer [SRO] security forces would be established under rules developed by the Rhode Island Department of Education [RIDE] and adopted on a district-by-district basis as determined by local school officials.

I reacted rather strongly to the bill on Twitter:

On Friday I spoke to the Representative Shanley about the proposal.

Uprise RI: Where did this bill come from and what were your thoughts on this bill when you were developing it?

Representative Shanley: There was a group of parents in East Greenwich that approached me looking for more funding in the state budget for school resource officers. I spoke to some folks on the House Finance Committee about it and it seemed as though it was not something that was realistic, at least for this year.

I had the idea, because there was a retired police officer among the group of parents that suggested that there might be some folks willing to volunteer to serve in this role on, at the very least, a part-time basis. I thought that was an interesting idea – taking somebody that has the background and training serve as a kind of school resource officer. That might be a benefit school districts would want to avail themselves of. The Rhode Island Department of Education would have to come up with a screening process – set up rules and regulations relating to the position, and applicants would have to clear a background check.

In the bill there is a section about the volunteers being armed, but maybe it’s not necessary that they be armed. It could be that some school districts would want to have retired law enforcement officers or members of the military just at the door of the schools saying, “Hi” to people when they come in, while looking for people that look, you know, out of sorts.

It’s enabling legislation, a lot of it could be left up to RIDE and the individual school districts to determine what, if any, component of this would be a fit for them and if there was a sufficient number of people that wanted to serve their community in this role.

Uprise RI: I’m sure you’re aware of the controversy around the idea of SROs – essentially armed police officers stationed inside schools – and some of the high profile cases that have happened, even here in Rhode Island, concerning students of color and students with special education needs becoming victims of overzealous SROs.


Uprise RI: Then there’s the issue of bringing police to bear on issues of conduct in schools that used to be handled by teachers and now apparently needs to be a criminalized. What do you say to that?

Representative Shanley: It’s like any other profession. You’re going to have your bad actors and I don’t know that you necessarily enact policy based on bad actors. What you might change is the parameters under which they operate, as opposed to eliminating the position in its entirety. I don’t know that School Resource Officers are fit at every school everywhere. I think that that’s a decision that individual communities should make and they should make it in consultation with parents and faculty.

Uprise RI: In Providence, I know that the School Resource Officers are assigned to schools with a higher percentage of Black students. Studies seem to show disparate racial impacts when we utilize school resource officers. [See here, here, and here.] Shouldn’t we take in disparate racial impacts into account and shouldn’t that be a factor in deciding whether to allow the formation of volunteer school security forces in our state?

Representative Shanley: Of course. I think you definitely need to do that, but part of the role of School Resource Officers, I think, if you’re doing it appropriately, would be to try and build a relationship with every community as opposed to just being there to serve as the disciplinarian. I think if they had a role and a directive to build relationships, and at the same time be on the lookout for a threat and be prepared for an emergency, that could be a valuable role in schools.

What I struggle with is that in funding of School Resource Officers, you are, at least in theory, taking away funding from mental health resources. Which is, again, why I thought having a volunteer position would alleviate that concern because our schools, across the board, are just desperately underfunded for mental health.

Also, look at the whole school shooting situation. In my mind, we need an all hands on deck approach. Anything we think could be productive we should at least have a discussion about doing.

Uprise RI: I’m glad you brought up mental health because I was wondering why it would need to be armed, or even unarmed, militia or former cops saying “Hi” and looking out for trouble, when it could just as easily be social workers who are being paid by the state, or mental health providers, or nurses, or guidance counsellors any of the other things that students continually and consistently tell me they actually need, as opposed to armed police officers.

Representative Shanley: I think that would be a wonderful expansion of this if we could find volunteers who have the skillsets of social workers and mental health providers, but they’re in demand everywhere. They’re all working somewhere. I would be be happy to expand the scope of the bill for volunteers that we have in our schools. I know there are existing programs schools have where volunteers come in to help kids get through difficult programs. I think back to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters programs and I’m sure there are a lot of others. But vetting the people that come into our schools and making sure that they’re people who are safe to be around children is important. That’s included in the legislation as well.

Uprise RI: In the House Judiciary Committee we heard a bill from Representative Batista about the certification and de-certification of police officers. Rhode Island is the only state, aside from Hawaii, that doesn’t have a process of certifying or de-certifying police officers. Also, because of the way the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights [LEOBoR] works, a police officer who leaves his job under cloud oftentimes has their record sealed and inaccessible to the public. So on paper, a police officer might look great, but in their sealed record there might be a history of racist, sexist or transphobic comments or actions. Because we don’t have a process to certify and decertify, we wouldn’t know that this police officer was carrying animosity towards certain groups. That officer could then volunteer under this program and be given a clean bill because there’s no publicly available record of their activity.

Representative Shanley: To your point, that person could be hired for any position anywhere, including other volunteer positions available within the school.

Uprise RI: But that person wouldn’t be carrying a weapon or dealing with security and discipline on school grounds.

Representative Shanley: There could be something included in the legislation or in RIDE regulations that references when a police officer leaves employment in good standing, perhaps with a letter of reference from an immediate supervisor.

Uprise RI: In Providence we had this issue on Sayles Street where a police officer made transphobic comments about a young woman. When that officer was told that he was going to suffer a suspension, he retired, in good standing. If that officer wanted to volunteer for this program, I don’t see any impediment in this bill to his doing so.

Representative Shanley: I’m 100% open to suggestions on how the program could be better. I don’t know of anywhere else that has implemented something like this. I tried to put in some parameters – like having RIDE as a kind of a backstop. I think that would help address these concerns. It may be that when I present this idea in committee the members will decide it’s not a good fit for Rhode Island. But it’s an idea that a group of parents in my district had, and I think it’s worth having a discussion because, at the very least, everybody agrees that anything that could at least potentially make our schools a safer environment and put parents more ease without having significant, collateral, negative effects is worth exploring.

Uprise RI: I get that, but what significant, collateral, negative effects are too severe? Could that be just be one special education student slammed down on the ground having their life turned upside down?

Representative Shanley: To play devil’s advocate with you, what if one of these volunteers identified and stopped a shooter as they came into the school? I think there’s a risk both ways. There’s this idea that just because there could be this worst case scenario that you’ve identified, that we have to assume that’s going to occur and we can’t consider the benefits and make an informed decision. That’s part of the cost/benefit analysis that we have to go through. Once you’ve done the cost/benefit analysis we figure out what guidelines and frameworks we need to prevent the worst case.

[A recent study from Brown University, The Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing Across the U.S., found that “SROs do effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools, but do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents. We also find that SROs intensify the use of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students. These effects are consistently over two times larger for Black students than White students. Finally, we observe that SROs increase chronic absenteeism, particularly for students with disabilities.”]

Uprise RI: Have we taken into account what the data says on the effectiveness of School Resource Officers in preventing school shootings? There’s that famous case in Uvalde, Texas where the men with guns waited outside and didn’t do anything to prevent the terrible things that were happening inside. We also know that well-trained police officers, in high stress situations, are not always accurate or equipped to make the right calls and actions.

Representative Shanley: The words you used are “always right.” They’re not, and you’re not goning to find anybody that disagrees with you on police officers always being in the right position or always being willing to put themselves and their own wellbeing on the line to protect kids. You’re certainly not going to find somebody that’s always willing to do that. But at the very least you would have somebody that’s gone through a training program, that can assist in getting kids to safety, and making sure the building is locking itself down until the police get there. Someone who’s ready to step in, even if they aren’t armed, to get everybody into as safe a position as possible until the Calvary arrives.

Uprise RI: I reacted to this bill pretty strongly on Twitter, because I feel that emboldening more armed militia style groups in this day of right wing rage attacks on trans rights in schools, including Smithfield, is a bad idea. Black kids in Providence going to schools with SROs tell me they see the entire process as just part of the school-to-prison pipeline instead of an opportunity for eductaion.

Representative Shanley: I completely understand the emotional reaction. But on the flip side, my son is going to kindergarten. My father passed away in 2019. He was a Warwick Police Officer for 26 years and then was a Deputy Chief in the Police Department at Brown. One of the primary things he worked on at Brown was community relations and getting the the student body to be comfortable with the Police Department and trying to do as much as he could with the Police Department to interact with students and build a relationship. And I look at my father, sitting at Cedar Hill Elementary School where I went, and he was just one of the friendliest people you could ever meet. From saying “Hi!” to the kids on the way into school in the morning and in the afternoon just hanging out, having a coffee and walking around being friendly with kids and allowing them to have one of their first relationships with law enforcement be a positive interaction.

And at the same time, maybe just a little bit, putting parents and teachers at ease knowing that there’s somebody like that walking around the school while their kids are there, whether he’s armed or not – that’s another discussion. I’m not a gun person. I’ve never handled a gun. I’ve never fired a gun. I have no interest in it. But I do have an interest in doing whatever I can do to make sure that my children are safe at school.

I don’t want to participate in having created or emboldened any maliciousness. I’m as disgusted by some of the stuff that we’ve seen around the country as everyone else is that has a heart and and a pulse and a brain. I certainly don’t want some right-wing officer harassing students of color for no reason on a daily basis, but that’s not what I envision this to be. I want to have the framework in place so that it isn’t that, and have consequences for anyone that thought they would come in to the schools and act like that.

Uprise RI: Thank you for your time.