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The City Journals

Holladay schools rely on School Resource Officers to build student relationships

Jan 05, 2021 11:19AM ● By Heather Lawrence

Officer Jaime Cardenas is based at Olympus High and teaches two law enforcement classes to students. (Olympus High)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

For students to learn best at school, they need to feel safe. In Granite District, that means utilizing School Resource Officers. SROs are law enforcement officers assigned to be in a school full time, and Holladay has three of them.  

“We developed our SRO program in conjunction with Unified Police Department as a security resource and cost-cutting measure. We cover a large geographical area and crime doesn’t stop at the school doors. Since the ’80s, it has been financially practical to have an officer assigned to a school,” said Ben Horsley, spokesperson for Granite District. 

The UPD website lists the three Holladay schools with full-time SROs. Olympus High’s officer Jaime Cardenas teaches two law enforcement classes. Olympus Jr. High’s officer is Thom Loevlie and Bonneville Jr. High’s officer is Tonya Lovell, one of only two female SROs. 

Granite School District employs its own police force, run by Chief Randy Porter. SROs work in conjunction with them, but are separate. As sworn police officers from the community, they are armed and can investigate crimes.   

“SROs are a presence in the school. People who are attracted to our force are experienced and want that community connection. Kids can take law enforcement classes from them. Students learn that police officers are our friends, they’re trustworthy and want to keep them safe,” Horsley said. 

Due to the unique nature of the position, there are specific qualifications for an SRO. They are hired and paid by UPD. However, the school district reimburses a portion of their paychecks back to the police force. 

Justin Hoyal is Chief of Police Services for Holladay City. Hoyal worked in schools from 1997- 2015 and hires SROs with input from Granite District. 

“The SRO job is about building relationships with students, so they need to be able to do that.  Students trust them and will talk to them about things that are going on in the school,” Hoyal said. 

District officials say those relationships work both ways, and may keep students safer by mitigating improper use of force or abuse of power by law enforcement. 

“The idea is this concept of community policing,” said Doug Larson, attorney and director of policy and legal services for Granite District. “When officers don’t know their community, they may be quicker to use force instead of de-escalation. We train for de-escalation [at great length], so to have the SRO program in schools is part of the antidote instead of the problem.” 

“I’m the first to admit that police across the country have abused their power in many situations. Those aren’t limited to situations outside of schools. Our goal is to escalate this idea of community policing to such a degree that we minimize these abuses of authority,” Larson said. 

UPD’s website aims to be transparent about its policies and procedures, including what mandatory training their officers have undergone for the past several years. More information can be found at www.updsl.org, and information specific to Holladay is under the tab “Our Communities.”

If cuts in funding made it impossible to retain SROs, Hoyal said that would negatively impact schools and students. 

“What you lose if a school resource officer was taken out of a school for any reason, including lack of funding, is the relationship with students. We could always send an officer to a school but a patrol officer doesn’t have that relationship.

“And if there is an emergency situation in the school, a resource officer is already there. They don’t have to wait for dispatch to send someone,” Hoyal said.   

The role of officers in schools is a balancing act. Over the years, several bills have tried to clarify the boundaries of SROs. HB 239 passed in 2017 and addressed juvenile justice. Larson gave input on crafting the legislation.

“I spoke out against HB 239 initially because of lack of school input. We wanted to make sure it was in line with how schools are managing kids’ behavior, and to obtain resources that were suggested but not funded,” Larson said.  

“HB 239 helped define the point at which an SRO would step in. In the past without this guidance, they may have stepped in too quickly to try to become a disciplinarian. 

“An SRO is not an administrator with a badge and gun; they’re not enforcers. Before an SRO gets involved, we need to ask, ‘Is this an administrative issue, best handled by a school administrator? Or is it a crime?’” Larson said. 

Another bill in 2017, HB 92 was sponsored by Holladay representative Carol Spackman Moss. It addressed the use of physical restraint in schools, especially with students with special needs. Spackman Moss said the bill wasn’t drafted with resource officers in mind, but it can affect them. 

“The Disability Law Center gave me articles from all over the country where a school resource officer had come into a room because things were escalating and a student was considered dangerous. Kids get bigger and they’re hard to restrain. Kids can and have died,” Spackman Moss said. 

Spackman Moss also heard from parents of students with disabilities. Some get physical and cause damage to classroom equipment. How to react when that happens is a contested topic. 

“When it comes to students with autism or other disabilities, some aren’t able to express how they’re feeling. I had a parent talk to me about her daughter who has autism and is nonverbal. Someone who didn’t know her triggers wouldn’t understand why she was acting out. 

“It touched a nerve with me, the idea that a child who can’t explain why they’re frustrated or upset would ever be restrained. This parent said that she’d rather pay for a 100 broken iPads before she’d want her child restrained. I’m really glad that bill passed,” Spackman Moss said. 

Before her political career, Spackman Moss taught English at Olympus High. “We always liked the SROs at Olympus. I know there are criminal activities going on in high schools, so we need them. With that many kids in the same place, you need a police officer. And in the event of a school shooting or life threatening event, they’re essential.”

Spackman Moss said the goal of relationship-building between students and SROs works. “I had an SRO tell me that because he was there each day, kids would tell him things that were going on. He knew which kids were in gangs. He knew about thefts and break-ins,” Spackman Moss said. 

As the SRO role continues to be refined, Horsley and Larson agree one improvement would be increased diversity of the SRO force.  

“There’s no question—we have room to improve. Our ability to hire and retain a more diverse workforce is a challenge for us,” Larson said. 

“If you saw our [Granite District] police force, it is diverse. We’re always working to increase opportunities to hire so our demographics can look more like that of our student body. Those who speak Spanish are highly sought after. And right now I know of only two female SROs in GSD,” Horsley said. 

GSD and UPD both have the same goal: to “provide for a safe environment conducive to learning.”  

“We can do a better job of letting people know that officers are in schools and what they’re doing here. Every day people are coming up with new ways to pose threats to our schools. We want the kids here to know that officers are keeping them safe and building relationships,” Horsley said. 

Hoyal agreed. “The role of SRO is very important. I’ve worked in schools before, I’ve been there and it works. I’ve personally had cases where kids have disclosed abuse or guns in school, or that one of their classmates put graffiti in the bathroom. For all these types of things, we are there to be a help and an asset to students,” Hoyal said.