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Schools Vote To Remove School Resource Officers Amid Protests Against Police Violence

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Almost 90% of American schools have a police officer working on campus at least part time The Justice Department poured millions into funding police on school grounds after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Some of these police officers received training to become a school resource officer, or SRO. But after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests against police brutality, several school districts, including Minneapolis, Portland, Denver and Seattle, have voted to phase out SROs.

Don Bridges is a police officer in Baltimore County, Md., and has trained student resource officers all over the country for more than 20 years. Thank you for being with us.

DON BRIDGES: Thank you. It is my pleasure and my honor.

SIMON: I gather, sir, you believe police officers still have a place in schools. Is that right?

BRIDGES: Yes, I do.

SIMON: And explain why, please.

BRIDGES: What we cannot forget is that schools remain a soft target. One of the things that I would make clear is that, when we look at implementing school resource officer programs, it is very important that the officers are very carefully selected and those officers receive the appropriate training. Working within a school environment - that takes a very special person.

SIMON: I'm sure you're familiar with The Washington Post analysis in 2018 that showed that school police officers rarely made a difference in preventing school shootings. And, of course, then many other activists argued that officers, in fact, pose a greater risk to students of color. How do you put those two factors together?

BRIDGES: What I can tell you is that, when we look at those incidents that are inappropriate that don't go as this model should, we have to look at the training. Now, I have had the fortune of working in a lot of schools that have been predominantly schools of color. And I can tell you firsthand. Walk with me. Get in my police car with me and then drive through any neighborhood as to where my school is, and then you'll see what the relationship is between me as the SRO and the students. And I'm talking about students of color.

SIMON: Well, tell us, if you could, how you see your role in the relationship that you've had with students over the years and the role you played in schools?

BRIDGES: I was working just last Friday. And I was riding through a neighborhood near the school where I worked for many, many years. And I see this guy. He's a man of color. And it just so happens that he was one of my students. He is 38 years old. He said to me, I want to thank you for helping me. And then he went on in the conversation to say that, a few years ago, he and his friends were stopped by the police. He said they were surrounded by officers. And then what this young man told me - he said, but because of what you taught us while I was in high school, I was able to communicate with those officers. And I feel very, very strongly that if I had not used the strategies that you shared with us, that situation would've gone south.

SIMON: You talk about the training. And we should mention that you, of course, are an African American police officer working in Baltimore County, where Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. Three officers were charged. They were acquitted. What is this moment like for you?

BRIDGES: What I can say is that for almost 30 years, I've, like, worn my uniform. And I've worn it with pride. Does law enforcement need some tweaking and some improvement? Absolutely. When we look at issues like Freddie Gray or any of the similar incidents that have happened, that's a tragedy. And in this nation, we are better than that. And that cannot continue.

SIMON: But don't a lot of - and you know this, Officer Bridges. I mean, don't a lot of police cover up for each other when the investigation comes?

BRIDGES: Not the good ones - if there is a situation where I see something going wrong, I'm going to stand up. This whole notion that that is a part of the police culture - that is absolutely false. What we have to do for the good of society is to do everything within our power to rid us of any officer that is going to be out there and that is going to do the wrong thing, that is going to not do the job fairly. We have some housecleaning that we have to do. And that needs to start immediately.

SIMON: Don Bridges is a Baltimore County police officer and former president of the National Association of School Resource Officers. Officer Bridges, thanks so much for being with us.

BRIDGES: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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