Why some Arizona school districts are having trouble filling full-time campus police officer jobs

More Arizona school districts want student resource officers on campus but some are having trouble hiring them.
Published: Sep. 5, 2023 at 3:17 PM MST|Updated: Sep. 6, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - There’s a renewed push to add more police officers on Arizona school campuses. The state allocated $100 million, but some districts said they can’t fill many of these school resource officer or SRO positions.

Last September, more than a thousand students and staff ran for their lives at Central High School in Phoenix following reports of an active shooter. The incident reignited the conversation about SROs in one of the country’s largest high school districts, Phoenix Union.

At a June school board meeting, students, parents, and teachers spoke out on the issue. “We should not feel this way at school, at work,” Teresa Hill, a teacher, said. “The police in Phoenix have a history of violence against our youngsters, our children,” said parent Marta Flora. “We need SROs on our campuses… Having SROs on campus will keep our students safer,” Maryvale teacher Megan Christenson said. “Phoenix Union District cannot afford to place more cops in schools; there were cops present at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas,” Daisy Hernandez, a student, said.

Anti-Police Movement In Schools

Following student protests and petitions in 2020, the Phoenix Union District pulled the plug on its SRO program. A move Phoenix Union officials claim saved the district over one million dollars.

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked the Phoenix Interim Police Chief Michael Sullivan if he supports having his officers in schools under the SRO program. “It’s a very valuable tool if we can be in schools and develop those relationships early,” Chief Sullivan said.

The presence of officers on campus was once controversial in many districts, but with the number of school shootings rising across the country, there is growing support for their return. “It allows us to have an immediate response to a problem and sometimes stop it before it even starts,” Officer Devon Lines with Scottsdale Police said.

In May, the Arizona Department of Education approved a $100 million to increase the number of SRO positions in the state from 190 to 301. Arizona’s Family Investigates reached out to all 58 school districts in Maricopa County. Of the 26 that responded, only 15 have SROs, and another three said they applied and got approval. Those three districts explained Phoenix Police and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office don’t have the staff to fill those positions.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne brought together the School Safety Taskforce in August, charging them with developing solutions. One of them would create a separate certification to become an SRO. Right now, SROs must be state-certified police officers. The change would mean retired officers, security guards, and veterans could act as SROs.

Horne appointed former Phoenix Assistant Police Chief Michael Kurtenbach, Director of School Safety, to oversee the task force. Kurtenbach said he doesn’t believe security guards should be armed. “I want him or her to be focused on a singular threat or threats. I don’t want new guns or additional guns introduced in that scenario,” he explained.

Resistance and Challenges Remain

Taskforce members had mixed opinions about the idea. “If it can be a positive role model, approachable adult and represent law enforcement in a positive way, it’s a win, win,” Stephen Dieu, the President of the Arizona School Resource Officer Association, said.

“Let’s carve out a new path. Let’s utilize those things that are working today,” said Gerald Richard, a former public defender, longtime pastor, and community advocate. He points out that this funding is only in place for three years. He’s seen money like this come and go. That’s why he’s urging the state to spend it more sustainably. “We move toward technology as far as protecting our schools,” Richard said.

Richard believes school officials should look to possible alternatives, like artificial intelligence (AI). At least one Valley school district, the Tolleson Union High School district, hopes to roll out an AI program next year that can help ID dangerous situations before they happen.

Phoenix Union board members recently approved plans to create six SRO positions to cover their 24 schools serving more than 28,000 students. But Kurtenbach warns that Phoenix Union’s regional approach has its drawbacks. “You can get a point where there’s diminishing returns; you don’t want to have a single officer covering too many schools,” Kurtenbach said.

Phoenix Union officials say their schools still do not have SROs in place due to the ongoing officer shortage that continues to plague Phoenix Police. Many officials say the problem will likely be prolonged unless the SRO regulations under state law are changed. The idea has already raised concerns with the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST), which certifies local and state law enforcement officers. Superintendent Horne says that’s why his task force is bi-partisan.

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