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INDIANAPOLIS– As central Indiana students head back to classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, school resource officers (SROs) are preparing to handle a school year like none we’ve ever seen.

School districts have put together health and safety plans that include masks and social distancing guidelines inside school buildings. Many students and their families may be feeling anxious and unsure about what this school year will bring.

That’s why the SRO’s role as a mentor and guide could be more important than ever, according to Clark-Pleasant Schools Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan.

“If we can be a calming presence and let them know it’s going to be okay, this is what you should do to protect yourself, maybe they won’t be so upset and they can concentrate on what they’re here for.  And that’s to learn,” O’Sullivan said. 

O’Sullivan and Avon Schools Police Chief Chase Lyday say school resource officers will not be in charge of enforcing mask and social distancing requirements in schools this year. Both men say those rules are being treated like part of a school’s dress code and will be enforced by school administrators and staff. However, SROs will be reminding students of the new requirements and encouraging them to follow the rules.

“Instead of taking a law enforcement stance, it’s more of a mentor stance,” Lyday said. “It’s an assist to our principals.”

“Most of my officers have a common sense approach and they have a good enough rapport with the students to say, ‘Hey, the principal has been asking that we do this, so you might consider doing that,’” O’Sullivan said.

“We’re helping our principals enforce those rules rather than making that a law enforcement issue,” Lyday said. “So our officers don’t become the people of punishment, they become the presence of safety.”

If a student consistently ignores COVID-19 guidelines, O’Sullivan said an officer could report it to school administrators for follow up.

“Something like that would typically go to the dean of students and they’ll handle it,” O’Sullivan said. “But as far as law enforcement, we won’t get involved in that at all.”

Some school district police departments, including Clark-Pleasant and Avon, are reaching out to surrounding agencies for additional part time officers to help with traffic surrounding school buildings.

“Just because we anticipate a lot more car riders,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re going to be at each school, boots on the ground, trying to help with traffic so that main thoroughfares don’t get backed up.”

“There are less kids riding buses, that is one of the biggest adjustments that we’ve had to make in the school district,” Lyday said.

Overall, both chiefs believe SROs will play a crucial role by guiding students, answering questions and addressing concerns as the school year moves forward.

“To reassure kids that they are safe when they come,” Lyday said. “And that calming presence is exactly what we’ve asked from our officers.”

“Every year it’s important for us to build that relationship,” O’Sullivan said. “But this year maybe more so, because there’s so much fear of the unknown.”