This article was written by Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough and Dr. Amy Grosso from the Round Rock ISD Police Department and was originally published on the Learning Counsel website.
In Austin, we have an area called the Sixth Street entertainment district where people go for entertainment and nightlife. And at our police department, which serves nearly 50,000 students in Round Rock and Austin, we have a saying: “You can’t police sixth grade the same way you police Sixth Street.” That’s why the Round Rock ISD Police Department has developed an innovative school policing model that we believe can be replicated to help any police department effectively support student safety for sixth grade – and all other grades – in a holistic way.
The Round Rock ISD Police Department was created in 2020 to serve the Round Rock Independent School District which enrolls nearly 50,000 students in the City of Round Rock and portions of the cities of Austin and Cedar Park. The district has 56 school buildings and encompasses 110 square miles. At the heart of our policing strategy is the commitment to support both safety and student wellbeing. We do this by focusing on four main areas: safety and security, behavioral health, equity, and student advocacy. This model can serve as a blueprint for effective and transformative school policing at any school district.
In a recent webinar in partnership with Vector Solutions, we outlined these Four Pillars of School Policing. Here’s how it works.
The purpose of school policing is to maintain a safe learning environment. This includes the following:
It also means being a role model, a mentor, helping students when they need it and being involved in the school community. We believe the best way to support safety and security is to have on-site officers in the schools, whether it’s through a district-specific police department like ours, or by having on-site school resource officers who are assigned by the local police department.
There are a few reasons on-site officers are preferred. Although all police officers learn health and safety codes, traffic codes, etc., if they don’t work regularly in a school they may learn very little about juvenile law or may not have the training on how to handle some of the situations that often come up in schools. They may also miss valuable opportunities to provide intervention that diverts students from the juvenile justice system. Having on-site officers who are visible and have daily interactions with students will result in better outcomes for your schools, students, and community.
A well-rounded approach to school safety must also include supporting student wellbeing. One of the things that makes our policing model so unique and effective, is that we have a Director of Behavioral Health Services and a team of 10 social workers on our staff. This has been transformative. Instead of asking a police officer to be the expert on issues of mental health and welfare, we can lean on one of our in-house experts. The social workers don’t tell police how to police and vice versa, but they do work as partners and offer each other support. Other ways we support behavioral health include having a therapy dog named Piper on our staff which can be very effective to help students in high crisis. We also emphasize training on crisis intervention and response and provide mental health support to our officers through a new peer support team in which we’ve trained some of our staff to help our officers get the mental health support they need if they’re involved in an incident.
When we say equity, we mean being able to identify the individual needs of each student and finding ways to support them. For example, if a student needs more behavioral health support, or if they need to discuss something going on at home, or if they’re concerned about their future, we want to make sure we understand their issues and can find ways to help. Having on-site officers helps with this because our officers get to know the students well. We also keep track of how many students we divert from the criminal justice system and what those demographics are. We have targeted professional development around equity for our officers. All new police department employees are required to take an equity class. We also work in partnership with the Round Rock ISD’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and its Chief Equity Officer. Our department has hosted open discussions with the community about current events.
We make sure every officer is an advocate for our students. Our goal is to keep them out of the criminal justice system and give them opportunities to succeed. For example, having vaping devices is a felony in Texas for those under age 21 and an arrest for vaping can stay with them through life. We had a case study where a man had multiple arrests as a student and then later in life couldn’t get a job because of that record. He said “I wonder what I could have become if someone had intervened.” We have an amazing opportunity to advocate for our kids. If they are vaping because they’re addicted, or because they’re self-medicating to cope with things happening at home, let’s figure out how to help them. We try to advocate for them so it doesn’t haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Here’s an example of our model at work.
SITUATION: An officer was called to an elementary school because a student was making statements that he wanted to harm himself, his mom and his sister. The officer called for a social worker and they met with the family to figure out what was best for the student. The mother was desperate for help. Previously she had taken the student to the psychiatric hospital and he wasn’t admitted.
SOLUTION: The officer took the student to a psychiatric hospital. They were turned away because the student didn’t have a negative COVID test. So the officer and social worker spent time trying to get the student tested, and when they were unable to do so, they worked to find another hospital that didn’t have that requirement. The student was admitted and was able to get the help he needed. If this had been a traditional SRO program, the officer likely wouldn’t have been able to invest this kind of time into the case.
OUTCOME: The student got the support he needed and the department connected the family with support to help them long-term after the immediate crisis was over. On Christmas Day, the student called the officer and said “I want to tell you Merry Christmas because you’re my favorite person.” That’s what’ it's’ all about. It’s not about statistics, or how many arrests are made, it’s all about intervening and helping students’ lives change.
Watch our On-Demand Webinar Connecting the Dots Between Student Mental Health and School Safety with Chief Yarbrough and Dr. Grosso to hear more about their innovative model of school policing.
Jeffrey Yarbrough is the Chief of Police for Round Rock ISD. Before being named Chief, Yarbrough served Round Rock ISD as the Executive Director of Safety and Security since 2019. Before coming to Round Rock ISD, Yarbrough served as the Chief Operations Officer and Chief of Police for Bastrop ISD. He has also served as an investigator in the Public Integrity Unit for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, a senior investigator for the State Bar of Texas, and Assistant City Manager and Chief of Police for the City of Tulia. A veteran of the U.S. Army, he served in the 101st Airborne Division and was a Distinguished Honor Graduate of the Advanced Training Program. Yarbrough holds a master’s degree from Texas A&M University and a bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas at Brownsville.
Dr. Amy Grosso is the Director of Behavioral Health Services at Round Rock ISD. Dr. Grosso completed her Ph.D. in Counseling and Counselor Education at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She started her career as a mental health counselor at Wake Forest Baptist Health. She now oversees a team of social workers and campus based mental health centers. In addition, Dr. Grosso is part of the formation of a new district police department aimed at reforming school policing by focusing on safety and security, behavioral health, equity, and student advocacy. Dr. Grosso also serves as the Board Chair for the Central Texas Chapter of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. She co-authored the book Schoolwide Collaboration for Transformative Social Emotional Learning that came out August 2021.