A nationally recognized Utah police officer strongly urged a legislative task force Monday to vastly increase numbers of school resource officers in Utah public schools.

Chris Ruiz, a school resource officer at Pleasant Grove High School, told the Utah Legislature’s School Security Task Force, there are 256 SROs that serve Utah’s 1,083 public schools, which includes district and charter schools. Many officers are assigned to multiple schools.

Put another way, Utah’s public school enrollment in fall 2022 was 674,650 students, which means there was one school resource officer per every 2,635 students, although many Utah schools have none while other districts have at least one officer at every high school.

“School resource officers make the difference. We change the narrative. We need more SROs,” said Ruiz, who is also a detective for the Pleasant Grove Police Department.

“I implore you, I beg of you, that this task force can come to some type of agreement, some type of resolve, that funds can be allocated to the hiring and recruitment of properly trained school resource officers.”

The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that every school have at least one “carefully selected, specially trained school resource officer.”

Ruiz, who was recently honored with the National Association of School Resource Officers regional exceptional service awards, wears multiple hats at the Alpine School District high school. In addition to his law enforcement duties, Ruiz has sponsored the school’s multi-cultural club, its law enforcement club, coached its swim team and even choreographed a dance routine for the ballroom dance team.

It’s all in the name of connecting with students and building bridges with the community, he said.

He also makes an effort to work with students who are struggling.

He shared his interactions with one student who Ruiz said was disruptive, defiant, did not like police officers and was struggling with mental health issues.

“I will say that my first interaction with him was not positive. It was somewhat of a negative experience. So I made it my mission to get to know this student and to get to know him by name, and to get to know his family and his family history and whatnot,” he said.

Even then, Ruiz said he questioned whether he was making an impact with the student.

When the student experienced a mental health crisis and officers were called to his home, “he requested to specifically speak to me and only me. I realized at that time I was doing something right.”

Some time later, Ruiz met with the student “and we set goals. His attitude began to change. He put more effort into school.”

As the student entered his senior year, Ruiz told him if he had no absences or tardies and he brought up his grade point average that Ruiz would reward him with a gift card to the restaurant of his choice.

“By the end of the year, he fulfilled that deal. We had a great relationship there. His opinion of police officers started to change. His mother later confided in me that if it wasn’t for my actions and my interaction with him, things would have been completely different. He would have continued to go down that dark path. To me, that’s a success story,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said he does share his stories for accolades but rather as an example of how school resource officers can connect with students and their families to improve school climate and also to improve outcomes for children.

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While many on the task force acknowledged the important role of school resource officers, funding is an issue.

According to a presentation by Ruiz and Utah Department of Public Safety Sgt. Jeremy Barnes, public safety liaison to the Utah State Board of Education, salaries of school safety officers are typically split 50-50 between school districts or charter schools and local law enforcement agencies.

Retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watts said Ogden has had SROs in its schools since the 1990s, so it has extensive experience with officers in those assignments.

While the number of school resource officers in Utah is well below national recommendations, “we’re speaking today in terms of ideals, and we’re speaking in terms of standards and a variety of things. It’s just not that easy at the law enforcement level yet,” said Watts, a task force member.

“Identifying, recruiting, training and retaining school resource officers is one of the biggest challenges that least existed in my career,” he said.

In recent years, school resource officers have been the subject of intense national debate, with some national experts arguing their methods of policing have contributed to the “school to prison pipeline.”

Denver Public Schools, for instance, removed school resource officers from its schools in 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd.

This spring, the school board voted unanimously to allow police back into schools the day after a 17-year-old student shot two school administrators. Both survived, but the student died by suicide.

The Salt Lake City School District has an memorandum of understanding with the Salt Lake City Police Department that defines the roles of police in city schools, which is also recommended by national school resource officers’ association.

Ruiz said in recent years law enforce officers “have taken a beating. We’ve taken a black eye because of social media, mainstream media misperceptions, falsehoods, and what have you. A 30-second video that’s posted online that doesn’t give the narrative to the last five minutes of what actually happened. Because of that, we’ve just taken a beating,” he said.

But he knows from talking with students that he can work to cultivate their trust and an understanding of what law enforcement officers do.

“We’ve got to bridge that gap. We’ve got to get it together. If I’ve got to do things such as ballroom dance and other crazy things, and help coach the swim team and do charity drives and sing with the jazz band, or whatever it is ... to bridge that gap, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

Task force co-chairman Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said has some outstanding school resource officers who are “mission driven and they understand the role,” he said.

For other officers, it is not a career path they consider.

“There’s a lot we’re going to have to do to change that and it’s going to include significant increases in funding that we’re going to have to do. We can’t make up 256 to 1,000 (officers) without some serious changes there,” Wilcox said.