AURORA, Colo. (AP) — Tony Ramaeker averages about 14,000 steps a day as he walks around the Nebraska high school where he’s assigned to work as a sheriff’s deputy, greeting students as they arrive in the morning, roaming the hallways to talk to them and watching out for those who may be eating alone in the cafeteria.
The former Marine and longtime youth pastor keeps his suburban Omaha office stocked with treats like Little Debbie snacks and Pop-Tarts because the food helps kids in crisis calm down and talk.
But in the back of his mind, one thought always looms: What would he do if a gunman attacked the school?
The latest reminder of that danger came in May, when 19 children and two teachers were killed in a fourth-grade classroom in Uvalde, Texas. The fear that the next shooting could happen in their hallways hangs over school resources across the United States, exacerbating an already difficult job: They are called upon to have combat-ready officers whom parents and students can trust to they protect them while not making students feel uncomfortable or targeted.
Reminders of the threat of school shootings were ubiquitous at a recent National Association of School Resource Officers conference in Colorado, where hundreds of officers gathered for training.
An exhibit hall included booths with businesses selling ideas to stop the next school shooter, such as door locks and simulators to simulate shootings. One business showed off collapsible semi-automatic rifles and said a school resource officer is getting a Hello Kitty backpack at his school in Alabama.
“Mom and dad don’t want to see this gun in their school, but it needs to be there,” said Dan Pose, CEO of Gulf Coast Tactical, which sells the rifles.
Officers also participated in sessions to learn what went right and wrong in past school shootings. In one, they heard about the failure of a school security monitor to send an alert when it initially spotted the Parkland school shooter walking on campus. The armed school resource officer accused of hiding during the shooting was later charged with criminal negligence.
In another, they got an update on a 2019 school shooting in Colorado, in which a secretly armed private security guard accidentally injured two students.
A Colorado county sheriff also pointed to a more subtle failure in the response to that fatal 2019 shooting: Officers needlessly injured evacuating elementary school students by having them line up with their hands over their heads, even though authorities knew the gunmen were whether teenagers or adults.
“That right there will last a lifetime,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, pointing to the photo of the children, one of whom has his hands folded in prayer. Later, she explained that she wanted to encourage school resources to use their discretion and find ways to minimize trauma to children.
Officer Roy Mitchell Jr. said he tries not to let the preparation for a shooting take over his thoughts, but he watches the entrances and windows for any strangers heading into the suburban Baltimore high school where he works. He is also thinking about where he would try to take the students in the event of an attack.
“I try to always have some kind of game in mind,” he said.
Ramaeker said he believes he would not hesitate to do whatever he could to protect his students and staff. He’s even thought about how he would use the handgun he’s kept on his hip if he didn’t have time to retrieve a rifle he’s kept secured in the building since the 2018 Parkland school shooting.
They and other officers in Colorado for the conference stressed that building relationships and knowing what’s going on in students’ lives is vital to all aspects of the job — whether they’re acting as trustees or police officers.
Some offer to help make waffles and pancakes in cooking class or to serve lunch when cafeteria workers are sick. Others huddle at desks in the back row to observe what the students are learning. They are encouraged to teach a class, on topics such as the civil rights of citizens and the legal process. They watch who drives what cars, who goes out with whom, and who gets to eat lunch in the bathroom because they don’t have friends.
It’s an intense version of community policing that they hope will make them positive role models while also helping them learn about all kinds of threats that come up in their schools.
Lt. Sandra F. Calloway-Crim, who has been a school resource officer in Valley, Ala., for 18 years, said she received a call late one night after officers on patrol found a 13-year-old student at one of her schools wandering around. out alone in his pajamas. He knew the boy’s father would be working the night shift, but that his mother would be at home, and asked the officers to take the boy there.
But some activists say the police don’t belong in a school at all. Some districts went without police officers in schools during protests over racial injustice following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, amid criticism that they have disproportionately arrested black students, drawing them into the criminal justice system.
Officers from Fremont, Calif., were removed from the schools but reinstated a year later after negotiating the terms of a new agreement with officials. They spoke at the recent conference, encouraging superintendents to track all positive interactions they have with students to help balance reports of searches and arrests that usually only police document.
Don Bridges, who started a school resource officer program in suburban Baltimore in 1989, criticizes the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Bridges, who is black, saw the program as a way to build relationships between students and law enforcement after seeing too many people who looked like him get arrested while working on patrol. He said having police in schools does not lead to black students being targeted when the police are properly trained.
Detective Beth Sanborn drops what she’s doing at home and goes to work every time her phone explodes with texts from students on the campus where she works in suburban Philadelphia about a social media post deemed threatening.
Sometimes she feels guilty for putting the needs of her “students” before her own children. Emotional crises, fights and the fallout from failed relationships tend to be more on her mind than the possibility of a shooting, but she said building relationships with her students is key to preventing all kinds of problems.
“While it always has the potential to be there, what we’re hoping is that by emphasizing that sense of community, we can prevent any kind of violence,” he said.
After Parkland’s school resource officer failed to intervene when a student opened fire in 2018, students at a high school in Cullman, Alabama, asked officer Seth Sullivan if he would promise to protect them.
“You’re desperate, I’ll be in there. These are my kids,” Sullivan said.
Associated Press writer Thomas Peipert contributed to this report.
This version corrects the styling on the weapons listed in the sixth paragraph of the story, semi-automatic rifles, not assault rifles.