TOWER CITY, N.D. - When Chris Potter walks the halls of Maple Valley High School here, he's wearing his uniform as a Cass County sheriff's deputy so it's easy to see him as kind of an armed guard, especially with school shootings in the news.
But the school resource officer said Tuesday, March 20, that that's just one of his many roles and it may not even be the most important.
"If you have a situation where somebody is on your campus with a gun harming students and staff, several of your layers have already failed," he said, describing security as layers in an onion where the outermost layer is not walls or armed guards but knowledge.
"In almost every school shooting in this country, somebody knew something that could've been used to prevent it," he said.
School resource officers like him have been in the news lately because of their roles in school shootings. A month ago, an SRO reportedly stood outside a school in Parkland, Fla., listening to gunfire while 17 people were killed inside. On Tuesday, another SRO at a school in Great Mills, Md., killed the gunman, likely preventing another massacre.
Potter, who is also president of the North Dakota Association of SROs, said he's not casting blame on the other SROs - he said he doesn't yet know the full story - but trying to explain the realities of his profession.
An SRO's role
SROs are, as their title suggests, police officers or sheriff's deputies assigned to a school or several schools.
According to the National Association of SROs, the concept began sometime in the 1950s as a way for police to improve their relationship with young people rather than enforce the law on campus. That law enforcement role has gradually expanded and, today, it's one of three key roles that SROs play.
Potter said he sees himself as an informal educator, the one that builds better relationships with young people; an informal counselor who troubled young people can come to; and a law enforcement officer.
He said SROs are also increasingly taking on the role of an emergency operations manager who helps develop emergency plans.
In Moorhead, Ethan Meehan, an SRO who rotates among all the schools, described his role in similar terms, whether it's counseling students to prevent them from making poor choices or giving kids a positive role model.
Statistically, schools are still very safe and violence is very rare, according to Potter. But the challenge for SROs is that when schools are unsafe they can be very dangerous and SROs can't think as if it can't happen at their schools.
The Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 that killed 28 people, many of them young children, happened at an elementary school so nothing can be ruled out, Meehan said. "Even a school house in Amish country in Pennsylvania has been a target before. Right now you can't predict it."
For SROs, it can be especially challenging to think that a threat might come from within, as it may have in Maryland.
Potter said he feels as if each of the kids at Maple Valley High are his kids and yet he always has to be aware that one of them could become a killer. "Everybody who's ever served as an SRO has had that in the back of their minds and has thought about that and thinks about it every day they go to work. If we're not thinking about that we're not preparing."
To prevent that or any other violent act, SROs use a variety of tools to keep their fingers on the pulse of their schools. And it's more than just joking with students as they go down the hall.
Potter described many different ways he interacts with students, teachers and parents from going to after-school events to looking through social media to text messaging. He said he always asks kids to put his phone number on their phone and has gotten messages at all hours from kids seeking details about driver's licenses to kids warning that a friend wanted to commit suicide.
Meehan said he spends a lot of time dealing with social media where bullying, harassment and malicious gossip are rife.
'No cheap fix'
When Potter first heard about the Florida shooting during his commute to Tower City, he said his first thought was "Here we go again."
He said the horrific Sandy Hook shooting made him think that something would be done to prevent more shootings. But, as so frequently happens, it became a debate over guns that went nowhere, he said. "It was so disappointing because again it became an us versus them, pro-gun versus anti-gun arguments. All we heard was that rhetoric without any movement."
A self-described "Second Amendment guy," he said he personally considers arming teachers a "bad idea." He said he wasn't speaking for the county or NDSRO. This position, however, is the same as that taken by NASRO.
The only armed person at a school should be an SRO who's trained for it, Potter said. In theory, a teacher could be trained to the same level, but that costs a lot of money, he said.
The presence of other guns on campus can also complicate things.
"Anyone with a gun could be a bad guy," he said. An officer responding to a shooting must distinguish a killer with a gun from an armed teacher trying to help, and that could be very dangerous for everyone, he said.
School shootings are complicated, and there's "no cheap fix," he said. What he had hoped would happen after Sandy Hook, he said, was just more resources for mental health treatment and school safety programs, such as SROs.