Police Officers in Schools: New NT Program Targets At-Risk Children

The Northern Territory (NT) government has announced a reintroduction of school-based policing. The new “proactive” model will launch in 10 government schools in just a few weeks’ time when Term 4 commences, aimed at better identification of at-risk children, as well as improved youth engagement and community safety. The 10 schools were selected based on an “intelligence-led, evidence-based approach”, taking into account suspensions, incidents and numbers of at-risk youth.

The Program in Context

The NT first introduced a school-based police program in the 1980s; the program had its origins at a large school in Darwin, where a constable had been providing support services as part of an after-hours and weekend program which contributed to reductions in vandalism and property loss. A ‘Police in Schools’ Program was later piloted at the school and progressively expanded its operation to other schools, extending on the then current activities through education and other proactive support services. This included school-based drug use prevention courses taught by police officers, awareness activities like ‘Stranger Danger’, and the introduction of Neighbourhood Watch and School Watch (through which students/parents were encouraged to monitor school premises after hours). The successful program was replicated throughout Australia and overseas including New Zealand.

School-based police officers were reportedly trained in classroom techniques, methods of instruction and were assessed on relevant legislation affecting children such as the now repealed Juvenile Justice Act and Community Welfare Act, in effect preparing them to act as role-specific educators and not simply law enforcement personnel. This turned them into “walking, talking library books” that were invaluable resources in providing curriculum assistance to teachers.

Tammy Fudge, President of the NT Council of Government School Organisations, states that the school-based policing program was scaled back by successive NT governments, with police officers not based in schools but instead conducting occasional visits, and that the program no longer provided a benefit to schools and correlated with an increase in poor student behaviour.

According to the NT government, the new policing model is an improvement on the old program and acknowledges that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is ineffective. The new model allows greater flexibility to target at-risk youth with irregular school attendance or ongoing absence. The role of the school-based police will focus on three key areas:

  • acting as an educator and mentor by delivering programs to support awareness and knowledge
  • acting as a strategic community liaison by sharing intelligence across relevant agencies
  • enforcing school security and the safety of students, teachers and other staff.

The reintroduction of school-based policing aligns with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (NT Royal Commission), which published its final report in November 2017. The NT Royal Commission was formed in response to the treatment of children in care, and made nearly 230 recommendations, covering various reform areas across the youth justice and child protection systems including detention facilities and their operations, entry into the child protection system, legislation and legal process. The NT Royal Commission specifically recommended that a “specialist highly trained youth division similar to New Zealand Police Youth Aid be established” and that the “position of Aboriginal Community Police Officers be expanded and include the position of Youth Diversion Officers”. Refer to our previous School Governance article for more information.

Other Instances of School-Based Policing

Most Australian jurisdictions have school-based policing programs, and though they go by different names, they are all broadly aimed at strengthening relationships between police and young people and contributing to safe and supportive learning environments. Victoria is reportedly the only state without a police-in-schools program, with its program having been previously decommissioned in 2005, however there are over 100 resource officers working with schools.

A key example of alternative models is Queensland’s School Based Policing Program, a joint initiative between Queensland Police and Education Queensland. These officers support students at risk of offending while encouraging communities to aid in crime prevention and proactive policing. The program currently has 51 police officers servicing 57 government secondary schools in Queensland, with some operating in school districts. A school-based officer has an office within the school and, as a member of school staff, can be contacted through the administration office during school hours. Part of their role is to assist with presenting lectures to students, parents and the community on various topics including bullying, internet/personal safety, domestic violence and safe partying.

The NT program is focusing on government schools, and non-government schools are usually not the main subject of school-based policing programs. However, officers may be involved in certain schools that are considered to be higher-risk. For example, the New South Wales Registered and Accredited Individual Non-Government Schools Manual states that a registered non-government school must have in place and implement codes of conduct for members of the school community, with specific reference to anti-bullying including contact information for School Liaison Police. These officers work with high schools to reduce youth crime, violence and anti-social behaviour through various intervention strategies and educational programs. This indicates that non-government schools can, and in some instances are required to, provide access to school-based policing.

The Responsibilities of Schools

Whether school-based police are acting as ongoing on-site staff members or regular visitors to school premises, schools have workplace safety obligations to these officers to ensure that they are not exposed to any risks to their health and safety. They should also ensure that as part of normal recruitment processes, school-based officers receive an induction on school operations and governance structures, as well as ongoing training on school policies such as the child safety framework and critical incident procedures. The nature of the officers’ role, and by extension the nature of their induction, will depend on the balance in responsibilities between law enforcement, counselling and educational activities, which should be established based on the individual circumstances of each school.

Schools without school-based police are likely to already have staff appointed in roles which provide counselling and curriculum assistance. Many non-government schools have also appointed security guards as an extra precaution against security risks; these private officers would not have the same law enforcement powers as school-based police officers (such as powers of arrest and search powers with respect to student contraband), meaning they have a more limited ability to maintain security and enforce school policies.


About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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