HYATTSVILLE – The mention of school resource officers in these days of mass shootings and terrorist bombings conjures the intimidating image of a gun-toting security guard for some, but Sgt. Mike Rudinski insists SROs are in schools for much more than just safety.
“If you want to stop school violence, you must build relationships with students. You’ll never stop it by reacting to it. You need students to trust you, that will tell you if something’s going on in school so you can fix it,” said Rudinski, of the Hyattsville Police Department.
He’s one of more than 250 SROs in Maryland Public Schools, who are armed, sworn law enforcement officers with at least 40 hours of specialized training on youth issues. They operate on a “triad method”, offering mentoring, teaching and law enforcement, which all go hand-in-hand, Rudinski said.
Nationwide there are approximately 10,000 SROs, the National Association of School Resource Officers estimates. The need for added security was recognized nationally in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, said Jon Carrier, president of the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers.
The Department of Justice’s COPS in Schools (Community Oriented Policing Services) grant surged around this time, allowing for more local law enforcement agencies to dedicate officers to schools.
There was steady growth in the number of resource officers between 1994 and 2009, when the weakened economy took a toll on police budgets, said Mo Canady, executive director of NASRO. Now growth in the number of officers has rebounded, Canady said.
The positions are highly competitive, Carrier said, and are the ultimate example of community policing.
“It builds relationships. Kids know you and see you so they’re not afraid to speak to other police. You’re not just another officer driving around in a police car,” Carrier said.
At the start of each school year, Rudinski speaks to the freshman class at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, telling them about himself and his role and welcoming them to high school. He attends dances, ballgames and other school events to establish the kind of presence that helps students feel comfortable with him. He teaches safety lessons on gangs, drugs, alcohol and date-rape.
“I just want them to understand I’m here for them no matter what they need, and it seems to work.”
The better part of Rudinski’s day is spent patrolling the halls and responding to student concerns.
Before noon one Friday, Rudinski had already dealt with the discovery of a weapon-like object on school grounds and two delinquent students who needed an escort to administrators. But the biggest problems he sees are fighting and bullying.
“When I was in school, young people were only bullied for eight hours a day and we went home. Now because of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, young people are bullied 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, so they need more guidance now than they ever did in the past” Rudinski said.
High-schoolers have trouble separating school and home life so it’s important for adults in the school to help them sort things out.
Rudinski regularly scans his students’ social network accounts looking for signs of bullying or warning signs of students that may harm themselves or others. Students often stop by his office or even text him to alert him to fights or bullying.
Learning to communicate with teens has helped him grow as a police officer. “I’ve had to learn to keep up with youth culture, what’s going on with their lives and what influences them…Raising my voice doesn’t work with them. It’s much better to stay calm and genuinely be concerned with them,” said Rudinski, who moonlights as a disc-jockey, which he credits for keeping him youth-savvy.
It’s important that SROs make sure they realize their role is to stop fights and mediate, but not to discipline. That’s the school’s responsibility, Rudinski said.
“Arresting your way out of these problems doesn’t work,” he said.
However, if students need to be removed from school because they committed a crime, his squad car is conveniently and prominently parked on the sidewalk at the main entrance. These incidents disappoint and sadden him.
“I always look at young people when I have to transport them out of here and I look back at them and say, ‘Why did you make me do this? I didn’t have to if you had behaved differently,’” Rudinski said.
But these interactions with troubled teens can sometimes lead to lasting relationships. Providing a listening ear and treating students with respect often wins their trust and understanding.
“I can work with young people and I may change or save their life because they’re learning and are impressionable. We may be able to turn around bad behavior and that’s a great feeling of reward,” Rudinski said.
Rudinski’s presence also combats negative stereotypes minorities sometimes have of police officers, said Assistant Principal Linderal Arrington. A majority of Northwestern High School students are Hispanic or African American.
“Historically, police and minorities, we don’t mix. In the past, there has been a fear of the law for minorities, but he breaks these barriers with his friendly approach,” Arrington said.
It’s this approach and comfort the school has with Rudinski that makes his holster more reassuring than frightening.
“His presence sort of adds to the level of security. If we were to have a situation, we would have someone with the ability to protect us on our side. But because of his relationship with the kids, there’s less of an intimidation factor,” Arrington said.
He swapped the streets for the schools 14 years ago for the resource officer assignment, but Rudinski said they have been some of the most rewarding of his 17 year career with the Hyattsville Police Department.
“The best part of the job,” Rudinski said, “is seeing someone who is struggling as a teenager, working with them, providing a positive role model, giving them guidance and seeing them succeed.”