INTRODUCTION

Depriving individuals of their freedom through the criminal justice system is one of the government’s most immense and solemn powers. Law enforcement are at the forefront of exercising this power, having initial contact with individuals suspected of a crime and the general discretion of whether to arrest that individual. For years, the criminal justice agencies used “tough-on-crime” policing—with the belief that arrests and stiff sentences would deter crime—resulting in jail populations sky-rocketing. However, recidivism rates remain high, challenging the belief that tough-on-crime policies have kept communities any safer. In fact, research shows that even one night in jail could actually increase an individual’s chance of recidivism, not decrease it.

Today, more than 80 percent of the approximately 500,000 individuals in local jails at any given time are unconvicted. In an effort to reduce the negative impacts of incarceration and better uphold an individual’s right to remain innocent until proven guilty, many communities have effectively implemented alternatives to arrest. Studies show that these options not only maintain public safety, but oftentimes enhance it. Moreover, they reduce the strain on limited law enforcement, court and jail resources, saving taxpayers millions.

Alternatives to arrest can include alternative response models—such as co-responder and community responder—law enforcement led diversion, civil citations or criminal summons. To help communities better understand the benefits of these alternatives to arrest, we are going to talk to a variety of individuals in law enforcement whose department uses some version of these methods. We will discuss the importance of these programs, their benefits and any challenges.

INTERVIEW WITH ROUND ROCK INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT CHIEF OF POLICE DENNIS WEINER AND BEHAVIORAL HEALTH DIRECTOR AMY GROSSO

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Integrating mental health services and school resource officers provides a more holistic approach to juvenile justice.
  2. It is important for collaboration to start at the top, with the director of behavioral health and the chief of police working together daily on everything from overall strategy to individual hiring decisions.
  3. Stakeholder buy-in is critical: It must be everyone’s primary goal across the organization to ensure students do not end up in the formal juvenile justice system.
  4. If officers and social workers are out on campus forming relationships (instead of sitting in a patrol car or office), they can intervene before a student gets into trouble.

TRANSCRIBED INTERVIEW
[Note: minor edits were made to transcript for clarity purposes]

 Logan Seacrest: Hi, my name is Logan Seacrest, and I’m a Criminal Justice fellow at the R Street Institute. This is the second installment in our interview series on alternatives to arrest around the country. If you could both just briefly introduce yourselves, that would be great.

Dennis Weiner: Sure, I’m Dennis Weiner. I’ve been the chief of police for the Round Rock Independent School District for the last few months. Before that, I was assistant chief with the Palm Beach County School District Police in Florida, where I was overseeing Field Operations for the police department as well as the Support Systems Bureau. In that capacity, I worked with our behavioral services unit and we worked with the district’s Mental Health Division, which is a separate department in that organization. Once I joined the Round Rock Independent School District, I came into an organization that had integrated mental health services with the police department. Actually, Amy is one of my direct reports and she manages the entire mental health aspect of the district’s efforts and I’ll turn that over to her.

Amy Grosso: Yes, I oversee a team of social workers here at the district. I got hired in January of 2020. I was the first ever director in this position. It was a whole new department developing and then when the police department started in August 2020, I became part of the police department with the idea of how are we going to integrate officers and social workers together to ensure that we’re meeting the holistic needs of students. That’s always been our number one goal—how do we serve the students in the best way possible? So since then, really building out my team, I have 14 under me now: 13 social workers and a coordinator. I do want to say it’s my first time ever working in a police department, the last two and a half years. My background is mental health counseling. I was a counselor for a number of years and then became part of the educational [system] and how we integrate mental health services within education. That, you know, hasn’t always been as robust as I think it’s starting to become now.

Logan Seacrest: Yeah, and one of the reasons R Street was interested in speaking with you both is because of that holistic approach you take to serving students. You have a really interesting collaboration, like you said, between school resource officers and behavioral health specialists that I think provides an important alternative to arrest when kids get in trouble. So, could you kind of describe that collaboration in more detail and how it works?

Dennis Weiner: Sure. Our officers and our social workers right from the very beginning are fully integrated. What that means is that Amy sits on our panels for hiring, and I collaborate with her hires as well. But then after the hire, we train those individuals together, so our police officers and our mental health professionals are trained jointly. What happens during our training is not only do they get the standard training at the same time, but they also begin to build trust between the two professions, which is vitally important for having the effort succeed.

Amy Grosso: I would agree and even beyond that, that it happens at that level, but I think it happens at the officer and social worker level because of the collaboration that happens at our level. Often when we talk about our model, people are like, “well, how often do you collaborate with the chief of police?” And I’m like, daily, hourly, like, the decisions we make are very much together and we see that we’re two parts that are of the same coin. We often get asked, or I’ve gotten asked, “well, couldn’t you do the same even if you were outside of the department and you work with reporting to the chief of police,” and I can wholeheartedly say it would not work as seamlessly as it works if we were an outside department. Many organizations, especially school police departments, that is the model they work off, right, like here’s the police department, and here’s other mental health aspects within the district, but they’re not as seamlessly integrated as ours and that’s because we are within the same department.

Dennis Weiner: And the reason why that works so well is because not only do Amy and I work on the policy and strategic level to make sure programs are benefiting [students], and how they’re supported by both the police and mental health, but you’ll see it in the field between the social workers and the officers when they co-respond to situations. There’s a little bit of a give and take that happens as the two members of the team figure out who should take the lead, who should be in a supporting role and it may change roles over the engagement. It may start out as a mental health engagement and turn into a law enforcement engagement, or it could reverse. The benefit of having them both on station at the same time with the same experience and training is that they perform seamlessly toward a common goal, which is a positive outcome for the student.

Logan Seacrest: Right. Thank you. One thing I was wondering about is how did Round Rock decide to make these kinds of alternatives-to-arrest a goal? Like how did the collaboration come about? And did you design it based on some kind of evidence-based practice or some specific model that you saw elsewhere?

Amy Grosso: So, the district started on a journey of discovering what is the best option for us in what meets the needs of the district. That’s the critical thing, is that all of this has been developed out of what are the needs around our Independent School District (ISD). The Safety and Security Task Force was formed with community members, stakeholders, expertise in lots of different areas. In it, they decided that forming our own police department was critical, but they also said it is critical [to understand] that oftentimes, in a lot of what we see by research in statistics, certain groups of students are disproportionately impacted with police presence on campuses. So, we’ve got to keep that in mind. And then we also have to keep in mind the mental health needs of students—that a lot of times students are getting in trouble because of underlying mental health concerns, and we can’t criminalize that. We can, but it’s the wrong thing to do if we want students to be successful and graduate and become members of society. And so that laid the basis for how we would do this model and I would love to say that we detailed it out from the beginning. It didn’t. It organically happened. When I was hired as the director of Behavioral Health Services, I was within Safety and Security. It started a lot of these conversations and seeing how it all forms together. I can 100 percent say since we’ve started developing it, we just started our third year, it has been the best decision and we see everyday that students are positively impacted because of the way in which we’re approaching school policing.

Dennis Weiner: At its core, the things that we value as an organization from the police department’s perspective is we’re guided by four core values and principles: safety and security, equity, student advocacy and behavioral health support. With regards specifically to student advocacy, what we find is that as opposed to traditional school resource officers (SROs) coming in from outside agencies and providing the law enforcement presence, what we actually do is we actively advocate for the success of the student. And what that means is that we take every engagement with the goal of making sure the student doesn’t end up on the pathway to criminal justice services, but rather has the wraparound services and the interventions needed earlier on to make sure that the student has a successful outcome from the K to 12 experience. What may turn out originally to be a law enforcement response that would end up in an involuntary commitment—what happens is law enforcement responds in partnership with mental health counselors and social workers. And then we work as a team to get to the resolution that we prefer to have, which is a voluntary visit to a mental health facility where the services can be provided. And that’s better for all parties involved.

Logan Seacrest: Why do you think it is so important to keep kids out of the criminal justice system if possible?

Dennis Weiner: Well, I think there’s a couple of perspectives on that. One is the perception that law enforcement participates in the school to prison pipeline activities when they’re on campus. Whether or not that’s true in some places, it’s not true here. And I think that’s where we distinguish ourselves from that, that stereotype. What happens here is that our officers are committed to the aspect of preventing a student from going into the criminal justice system in any way possible. Now, sometimes the students don’t leave us with any alternatives. But with that exception in mind, we always look to prevent them or defer them from going into criminal justice services. You don’t see that kind of advocacy happening with most other law enforcement agencies. SROs that report to a municipal police department or sheriff’s office, they may be on the campus physically present, but their philosophy is not one of school-based philosophy where the best student outcome is what’s most important.

Amy Grosso: By us having our own police department, [our] Chief is one of the chiefs of the district, right? So, we have a chief of teaching and learning, chief of skills and innovation. So, they all meet together, so the chief of police of our school district police department is in all the conversations about all aspects of education. We’re really an invested part of knowing that what happens on our side in our area, impacts the learning that happens, impacts the student graduating, impacts what jobs a student has later in life. I think a lot of times we think just immediate and not the long term. You know, students do that all the time because their brains aren’t fully developed. They can’t really think far out. And so how do we help not criminalize a juvenile behavior? When we have other options for consequences and different things in assistance so that that student can have a bright future. We don’t want something, one mistake that happens in high school, or even middle school, stopping their career trajectory for the rest of their life.

Dennis Weiner: We put a face on the issues right? Our philosophy is if we can help change the outcome of an individual student, in many cases, then that will as an aggregate will help the performance levels of the district as a whole. But we start from the individual where a lot of the programs on the academic side of looking at the group as a population.

Logan Seacrest: Great. Can you walk me through how this just kind of functions on the ground, so to speak. Let’s say you get a call about an incident in a school. Who takes it, where does it go from there?

Amy Grosso: I think it depends on the nature of the call. You know, our social workers—officers can call them at any point, right? Officer will get a call about something they can immediately go to them, that type of thing. But our social workers daily are working other case files. [There are] roles for school counselors, principals, AP, so that is sort of preventative. Like, let’s know about students, and how do we help them. But a huge part of it for us is that our officers are out on campus all the time. They don’t sit in the office. They’re not just sitting in a car. They’re engaging with students all the time. And so a lot of our referrals for social workers aren’t because there’s criminal activity that an officer sees, it’s that our officers have formed relationships with students and then students talk to them and then they’re like, “oh my gosh, this student needs more help than what I’m trying to give. I’m gonna go take them down to the social worker down the hallway, because I know they can assist them.” It’s this whole idea of prevention and not waiting for a student to get in trouble. You know, our officers know the kids, they go to their basketball games, they go to their plays. They are really invested, because they care about what happens with the students in their life. Most of them got into this work because they want to help students’ lives. They come to our police department because they know we’re trying to do it differently. And they long for an opportunity to do a different type of policing that can be proactive and can have that lasting impact.

Dennis Weiner:  We’ve also started providing our…we have two social workers that are critical incident response social workers, and they have a particular training that we felt would be applicable to respond with officers in immediate situations where students are in crisis. And so they actually are, and will be monitoring our radio system so that they can hear calls for service coming out to the officers and they can assess those situations as they’re hearing them being articulated over the radio and [can] decide whether or not they may be able to add value to the response, in which case they are free to respond with the officers, and to provide additional assistance on the scene.

Logan Seacrest:  That’s great to hear. I think sometimes in the juvenile justice system, we can be so reactive that it sounds like your model is really a way to head off problems before they begin. So that’s really great. What would you say some challenges have been that you’ve encountered in forming this partnership and this collaboration?

Amy Grosso: I think sometimes, too, just because we can arrest doesn’t mean we should arrest. Sometimes that’s a hard mindset, a mindshift for some of…not our officers, but even more, you know, administrators and stuff because they’re not used to that. They’re used to, okay, we call the police and then the kid goes. And I say hold on a second, that’s not necessarily going to be—let’s talk this through. Let’s really look at this and so I think sometimes it’s even educating our educators on a different model of policing, because that’s not what many of them are used to after so many years of education.

Logan Seacrest: Yeah, one of the cool things that I read about your program is that you’ve started to incorporate therapy dogs and service animals. Can you tell me more about that aspect of your efforts?

Dennis Weiner: So we got therapy dogs that we utilize both proactively and reactively in the field, and so we are building for a capacity of five therapy dogs. We currently have a few out in the field. My experiences in my last district having firsthand observations of successes there, I was a big believer in the program and I was happy to find one that was established here, which was actually even a little more robust. Here we work toward not only providing those engagement opportunities ad hoc whenever we can get to the campus with the animals, but those dogs are really something we’re looking to in the future, injecting into actually the therapy programs where specific children may be helped on a regular basis with the dogs to help them with their anxieties, help them with their stressors and help them just associate more comfortably with the school environment. And then we also use them [therapy dogs] as a reward mechanism. So, if the behavior is positive for a week, they get some time to spend with the dog the following week. And so we found that to be highly advantageous in changing behavior.

Amy Grosso: It is a nice way to introduce police officers at times to students that maybe have had a negative experience. Because some of our students have had negative experiences [with police] or their families have. And so to see a therapy dog…because most of the time when you see a dog with an officer, it’s a drug dog, a bomb dog, like probably many others that I’m not aware of it. You’re not allowed to touch and it’s more of a punitive kind of thing. Where these are dogs [that are] supposed to be pets. Like you pet the dogs, you can engage, so I think even with that it’s really helped some of those relationships. I always say we humanize our officers, right, that they’re not an officer, they’re a person who is an officer. And I think the therapy dogs, definitely help with that.

Logan Seacrest: So what advice would you give to a law enforcement agency or a school district trying to start up a similar program to what you’ve got going on in Round Rock?

Dennis Weiner: I think it’s really important to get the right people on your team. They have to have the right philosophy, they have to understand what the expectation for the mission is, right? So that we’re all pulling in the same direction. That’s really important. And then to really have a successful program for intervention…you know, here in Round Rock ISD we use a threat assessment tool that’s required by the state but we use it very vigorously now to really try to empower our administrative and educational staff to help us identify those students that may be falling into a pathway to violence, or may be having coping issues, or may be having adjustment issues where we can provide mental health services at a much earlier point where those services have been shown to be much more effective and with a broader scope of available resources earlier on. Once the student moves down a pathway to violence in there toward the planning or operational phases, our resources are rather limited. You know, it’s going to be law enforcement, and some maybe very aggressive mental health services, but it’s not as easy to engage with family counseling, student counseling, all the wraparound services that may be available once a certain point is hit.

Amy Grosso: Just to echo what Chief said about getting the right people—you can’t just be that we have a few officers and then we have social workers and we’re just going to plop them all together. That it really does take people from the top that really buy into the philosophy—and not just by words, but in actions, too. You know it takes people from both sides, knowing that they’re experts in their one area. I can’t come in and tell them how to police; I don’t have that training. That’s not my expertise. I have to respect and value the expertise of those I’m working with. And I don’t think that happens with everybody—and no fault, right? It’s just our different experiences, we’ve had different paths in life, but I do think it really takes a chief who wants this model and trusts this model. But then it takes other leaders within the department to also fully buy in and be willing to learn and grow. I learn everyday new things because I’ve not ever been exposed to this and so we’re constantly being challenged and we have to be willing to readjust what we’re doing. Just because it worked last year doesn’t mean we can’t make it better this year, and continuing to do that and so you have to have that mindset that will continue to evolve.

Logan Seacrest: Well, yeah, I think that’s a perfect place to wrap up. Really appreciate your time today. It’s a really cool model that you guys have developed and I just hope more school districts and law enforcement agencies around the country can learn from you—learn from what you’ve done there in Round Rock. It’s really awesome to see. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.