Quaker Valley School police officer Aaron Vanatta walks through the hallways of the middle school in Sewickley pointing out measures he has taken to secure the building.
A group of officers from around the country trail behind him. He's sharing anecdotes that demonstrate what he’s learned, such as the importance of the cork boards above the tiled walls cluttered with posters of the school motto and student artwork.
“So you’ll see in the whole school, they let the kids put stuff up, so they’ve taken ownership in the building and they aren’t going to damage it,” he said.
It's also a way to prevent and students from hanging stuff in the hallways that could block security cameras, another trainer points out.
But this basic training through the National Association of School Resource Officers is not mandated in Pennsylvania.
The instructors stress that training is necessary, because officers are primarily working with adolescents whose brains haven’t fully developed. It’s different than working with the general public.
Vanatta said his job is to reinforce that their role is to protect students from imminent threats of harm. Earlier that day, he briefed school administrators on what he had learned from a recent school shooting in Kentucky.
“Their role is to be a law enforcement officer, their role is to be a mentor or informal counselor,” he said.
According to the NASRO website, the Alabama-based nonprofit was founded in 1991 using a “triad” concept of school-based policing. The idea is that an officer in a school is there to be a law enforcer, an educator and an informal counselor. They’re meant to keeps schools free of crime and violence.
Vanatta takes students on field trips to learn about the justice system and law enforcement. He's in classrooms talking about cyber bullying and traffic safety. And he has the authority to intervene in criminal conduct. He's a sworn officer.
But the association makes it clear that officers are there to step in if there is a threat of criminal activity. They are not to police disciplinary issues, such as violating the dress code or acting out in class. Those are issues that are typically covered in a student code of conduct, ones dealt with by administrators.
Several high-profile cases of officers restraining students for nonviolent incidents prompted the NASRO to issue a white paper in 2015 on best practices for school policing. According to that release, a clear and concise memorandum of understanding between the district and the law enforcement agency or officer is essential. That MOU should, “prohibit SROs from becoming involved in formal discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators.”
When five former Woodland Hills students filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in August alleging a culture of abuse, one attorney representing the students said a former resource officer at the school acted repeatedly as a disciplinarian.
The civil rights complaint filed collectively by three law offices named the school district, current superintendent Alan Johnson, former principal Kevin Murray, Assistant Principal Patrick Scott, Churchill Borough, Churchill police officer Stephen Shaulis who was placed at the high school as a school resource officer, and the security company Dynasty Security.
“Those resource officers, including Shaulis, were supposed to be specially trained to learn how to deal with students in a district so they would not be using force dealing with routine disciplinary issues,” said Tim O'Brien, one of the attorneys representing the students.
The complaint came after the district made national news for separate incidents of abuse. In November 2016, an audio recording of Murray threatening a 14-year-old student was released. Five months later, a video of another 14-year-old student being punched in the face by Shaulis, a Churchill police officer assigned to the school, was released.
Attorneys Todd Hollis and O’Brien are representing the five black students named as plaintiffs. The suit alleges that the students were discriminated against because of their race and because some of the students have emotional and behavioral disorders.
Tens of thousands of school resource officers patrol schools across the country. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2014 that 43 percent of schools had reported having a security guard or sworn law enforcement officer working in the school.
Vanatta said officers aren’t in school to arrest students even though they have the authority to do so.
“A lot of times these guys are getting themselves in trouble over things they have no business even being involved in,” he said.
One of his goals is to keep kids out of the criminal justice system.
“When they do get into trouble, I have solutions for that. Here at Quaker Valley we have the peer jury program,” Vanatta said.
For first-time nonviolent offenders he puts them in front of their peers to assess the harm and attempt to correct behavior.
Many students in the Woodland Hills district are dealing with factors that can cause tension inside of the school building. While 62 percent of Woodland Hills’ students are economically disadvantaged, 16 percent of Quaker Valley students fit that category.
Officer Vanatta recognizes that, but said it’s important to have the right kind of person doing the work of a resource officer. It has to be someone who wants to work with students.
“You can’t go in there and treat people poorly and expect to get positive results,” he said.
Vanatta said for many students, resource officers are their first exposure to law enforcement. He said he wants them to know they’re there to help.