Chief William Edwards has seen firsthand the power of school-based law enforcement (SBLE) to make campuses safer and more secure. He helped establish the Pflugerville ISD Police Department in 2008 and served as its chief for over eight years. In 2017, Edwards answered Hippo Nation’s call to lead the Hutto ISD police department. In this article, he uses his expertise to answer a few questions about school-based law enforcement.
Which qualities should Fund members look for in SBLE officers?
Officers who are patient, approachable, and eager to be part of a team tend to thrive in school environments. It is also important that they bring to the job an enthusiasm for working with young people and helping them succeed.
Today’s SBLE officers take on more than an enforcement role. Can you talk about some of their other roles?
We are also educators and mentors. As educators, we share our expertise in emergency preparedness, crisis prevention, reducing substance abuse, and other topics relevant to students, staff, and the community. As mentors, we build trust with students and work to make them comfortable enough to approach us for guidance in difficult situations at school and home.
What challenges do SBLE officers face, and how can schools help?
One of our biggest challenges is building relationships. Schools can help by giving us opportunities to interact with stakeholders. Bring officers into the classroom to support the learning process for vocational programs such as EMS and criminal justice. Invite us to PTA and faculty meetings so we can introduce ourselves, explain why we are on campus, and encourage parents and faculty to work with us to keep children safe.
Most of us are familiar with school resource officer and campus police programs. Are there other SBLE options?
Yes, and you don’t have to choose just one. The school marshal program has grown in recent years. There are also school guardians, contract security options, and volunteer programs such as Watch D.O.G.S., Volunteers in Police Service, and Citizens on Patrol that can augment SBLE or other school security programs.
Every district is unique in size, resources, and stakeholder needs. So, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to school-based law enforcement. The organization and its stakeholders have to come together and choose the best option(s).
Can you elaborate on the differences between school marshals and school guardians?
At a high level, school marshals are more regulated than school guardians. Both options allow some individuals to carry firearms on campus, but school marshals must be organization employees who are licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. They must also undergo psychological screening, receive standardized training, and comply with continuing education requirements.
By contrast, anyone who has written permission from the district to carry a firearm on campus, including non-employees, can be a school guardian. The school guardian option gives districts more flexibility and allows them to define the regulatory structure. But with flexibility comes increased risk. Before you allow school marshals or school guardians on your campuses, see this TASB school law resource and consult your organization’s attorney.
What if an SBLE entity doesn’t have the necessary resources to meet an organization’s needs?
The SBLE entity can address resource gaps by entering a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or an Interlocal Agreement (ILA) with another emergency response organization. Both are agreements between organizations that have overlapping jurisdiction to support each other with personnel, equipment, or expertise. I’ll share an example from our district. My team doesn’t have an ongoing need for a specialized investigator, but the municipal police department does. Through an ILA, we share that resource, which helps us do our job more effectively. The agreement also eliminates the need for taxpayers to fund duplicate resources.
How do organizations know if their SBLE initiative is successful?
In SBLE, we measure success by the absence of crime. However, some of our most important work doesn’t show up on a report. For example, I can tell you how many calls my team responded to last year versus the year before; that is important data for any law enforcement initiative to capture. But it’s also important to know how many calls we prevented because we were on campus every day, building relationships with stakeholders, and partnering with them to proactively address issues.
If you could offer one piece of advice to an organization trying to improve security through SBLE, what would you say?
Collaboration is critical. It doesn’t require a line item on your budget, and it doesn’t produce an immediate, tangible result. But it’s the most important thing you can do to make your campus safer and more secure. In Hutto, we live by a simple motto: “See something, say something.” That applies to law enforcement, first responders, administration, teachers, parents, students, and the community.
Can you share a personal experience that demonstrates how SBLE can make a positive impact in young people’s lives?
Absolutely. There’s no better place to make a positive impact than in a school. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at work or off duty and someone has approached me and said, “Do you remember me?” Typically, it’s a former student who might have been on the wrong path but changed their life for the better. Some have even gone on to become law enforcement officers.
One of the most recent events I remember was a call for service involving one of our students in a residential area. An officer from our team recognized the student’s name and responded to the location to assist. Because of his rapport with the individual and the relationship he built over many professional contacts, he helped resolve the situation as positively as possible under the circumstances.
I am fortunate to serve with fellow officers who work hard every day to fulfill our mission and reach as many young people as possible.
The Fund is here to help members make safety and security an integral part of their culture. If you need assistance, contact Melanie Moss, TASB emergency management and school security consultant. If you are a Fund Member interested in listening to the recorded webinar that covers community policing, contact TASB Risk Management Risk Solutions.
Pictured above: Hutto ISD Police Chief William Edwards and TASB Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss