By Allison Kallin/El Inde
The student sits down in the cold, metal classroom chair facing the school resource officer and begins to cry about a high school drama between her and her friends. Feeling alone with no one to sit with at lunch, she chose to pay a visit to the SRO office. Although this doesn’t seem like the typical issue that a school resource officer might handle, it is an everyday problem for Deputy Bill Farmer from Cienega High School in Tucson.
“Students always come up to me throughout the day and tell me any problems they have,” Farmer said, sitting inside a Starbucks, holding his iced latte. “My office is like a revolving door, there is always someone who needs my help.”
Farmer, a school resource officer since 2012, always offers advice and guidance to his students, from how to stay motivated in school, how to deal with family problems and how to develop healthier coping mechanisms for stress. But he is also armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and equipped with the necessary weapons as any police officer is. A school resource officer’s role is to be a mentor, educator and law enforcement officer. This “triad concept” is what Farmer aims to fulfill.
The triad concept is what separates a school resource officer from being a security guard. As a law enforcement officer, he makes sure that state and city laws are still enforced on campus. One of his main goals is to help change the attitudes that young people have towards law enforcement. This must be balanced with listening to students’ problems and offering guidance while enforcing the law.
“The goal for me is at the end of the day, to help students succeed,” Farmer said. “Do I have to write some of them up for breaking the rules? Yes. But my goal is not to arrest anyone. I always try to keep things between the student, their parents, the school and myself.”
Farmer consistently checks in with all students on campus but has closer relationships with those who frequently seek help and guidance from him. In instances where students wander the halls to skip class, instead of escorting them to class and writing them up, he will check in and see if they are doing well first.
Students are written up if they break campus rules after being given several warnings. Each case varies, but Farmer says that being written up is often times not a bad thing.
“Sometimes kids only learn when there are serious consequences,” Farmer said. “Students usually are not happy at first when I write them up, but eventually, a majority of them truly learn their lessons and are overall on a better road to success.”
In the course of being written up, the student is called into the principal’s office where the SRO and the student’s family members are present. They discuss what actions brought the student there and depending on what has happened, they may be suspended from school and will have to complete a long-term goal sheet that requires them to meet with counselors on maintaining their assigned goals.
In situations where students have misdemeanor offenses, school-related arrests do happen. SROs have the ability to detain and arrest students who violate city and county codes. In most cases, SROs choose to refrain from arrest and instead use diversion options, such as oral counseling, court diversion and alternative accountability programs.
However, not every school resource officer aims to use diversion options. In the state of Arizona, 1,640 students received a school-related arrest during the 2015-16 school year, while 4,884 students were given referrals to law enforcement agencies or officials by school resource officers in that same year.
By 2019, these numbers increased by the thousands. Although some of these arrests and referrals were the result of repeated offenses and sometimes serious offenses, many of them could have been avoided by using diversion methods to get to the root of the students’ problems instead of simply punishing them.
“I have only arrested a student once, and that is because they were found with drugs on the school property,” Farmer said. “I never want a student to end up in juvenile detention or if they’re 18 years-old, in jail. Usually if I give out referrals, they are sent to state programs that can help them get on the right track.”
Carter Clark, a former Cienega High School student, had a positive experience with school resource officers at his school and found mentorship through Farmer in 2015. Clark visited Farmer’s office during break periods nearly every day of the week and would talk about his school and family life with him to seek advice.
“Me and Bill grew closer throughout my time attending CHS through football, mutual hobbies and stuff like that,” Clark said. “I was totally for having a school resource officer. I feel like it gave everyone a sense of safety and gave students an outlet to learn more about the types of things you can do in law enforcement.” Many students expressed interest in going into law enforcement after high school, so Farmer would give presentations in classes throughout the day to educate students about it.
According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (SROs), Farmer is exactly what the role of an officer should be. However, there is scrutiny against SROs because of the numerous high-profile cases that show abusive behavior from SROs towards students. Cases that try to implement zero-tolerance policies toward high school students, like the Florida school Deputy Willard Miller who threw a 15-year-old female student with emotional disabilities to the ground in 2019, or the Arkansas SRO punching and choking an innocent male student earlier this year.
School resource officers are mainly placed in schools located in low-income neighborhoods. Policy makers have pushed for more SROs since the mass shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
According to the most recent data, there were 356 school-related arrests in 2017 throughout the Tucson Unified School District. In the state of Arizona, there were 1,200 school arrests in 2017. Racial bias is shown in schools with SROs. There is a disproportionate number of students of color who receive punishment in relation to white students. In 2009, black children made up 11 percent of suspensions, and 33 percent of expulsions, even though they comprise only 7 percent of the student body.
According to Farmer, the Tucson Police Department is training more deputies to become school resource officers so that there will be double the number of SROs in the near future.
“We are always trying to make schools feel safer,” Farmer said. “With more officers on campus there will be more resources for students and more protection for students on school grounds.”