Police at school: from suspicion to success

Police officers are becoming a welcome presence in schools. Flickr: EEPaul

When police officers - Campus Officers - were first assigned to Scotland’s schools, many people were sceptical, even hostile, to the idea. But more than a decade later, a research project has found that the officers have become a valuable addition.

The attitudes of schools, teachers and parents have taken an about-turn since Campus Officers (COs) were first deployed in Scottish schools in 2002. At first, the project was met with mixed reactions. Many officers faced difficulties at their new schools. Parents and teachers alike thought their schools would be perceived as deficient, dangerous or problematic as a result of the move.

One school spokesperson said: “At the start I certainly had serious doubts about having a campus police officer. What would the parents say? How would this affect their attitude to the school? Would they send their children elsewhere? Would they think that our corridors are running with blood?”

In fact, COs were based at schools with an extremely varied socio-economic and disciplinary profile. What’s more, people appear to have been won over as a result of their experience of working alongside COs. They have developed a better understanding of the role, and witnessed the numerous benefits of having a CO in a school.

Officers were installed in response to a perceived rise in youth violence, anti-social behaviour and teachers unions’ perception of increasing indiscipline within schools. Effectively, many youths were seen as problematic and disengaged from their communities. Education and policing began to forge partnerships to tackle these problems.

In Scotland, prevention, intervention, diversion and partnership approaches lie at the core of current youth justice thinking.

Prior to the introduction of a single national police force in April 2013, all Scottish forces – some in conjunction with the local education authorities – had introduced COs to selected schools in support of these approaches. There are currently 55 COs spread across 65 secondary schools and 15 local authority areas. Both the role and title are subject to regional variation.

The Violence Reduction Unit describes a CO as a police officer located within a secondary school who works with the school and the community to “help develop greater links with the community and in particular young people”. This in turn allows COs to provide additional moral authority, build up trust, and increase and enhance intelligence in the local area.

Given the novelty of the role, it was unsurprising to find that COs experienced a real lack of clarity when taking up their post. Expectations of some schools were that the COs would be managed within the school structure and responsible for discipline. In fact management responsibility remained with the police force.

Many COs felt that too little support was provided by their police force in terms of advance training, on-going support and recognition within the force.

These differences of experience reflect the lack of a prescriptive job description for COs, leaving the role open to negotiation between them and their schools. This allows COs to use their personality to win over pupils and staff. It also lets them make their own judgements as to where their efforts are best focused, effectively nuancing provision to meet current issues.

Numerous benefits were identified by the COs. They are a first point of contact for a number of services, acting as an effective “hub” and focal point for other services wishing to liaise with children and young people.

Having a locally based CO was thought to result in better community safety, both inside and outside the school. COs also claimed that school-based discipline had greatly improved.

Much of their work focuses on preventative policing and dealing with serious disciplinary matters when they arise: tackling bullying, providing regular educational input on drugs, alcohol, internet safety, gangs and knife crime and where necessary restorative justice interventions.

Another major element of COs’ work is pastoral: acting as a de facto guidance tutor or counsellor, providing off-the-record support for children and young people.

In some cases, this was an intentional focus from the outset, usually based upon an understanding of the limitations of guidance support within schools, and the added value which a different agent could bring. In other cases, it evolved alongside the relationship between pupils and their CO.

Sometimes, the link to law enforcement meant it was simply more appropriate to approach a CO than school guidance staff or counsellors. This was also true for parents, some of whom reportedly contacted COs about school and community issues, on the basis of recommendations from other parents, whose children who had been helped by the CO in question.

Because of their performance in these areas, many of the COs interviewed for the study described a change in attitudes. Through their actions in schools, COs have turned suspicion into success.