Abstract: Bruce Copple has worked as a School Resource Officer for 23 years.
Editor’s Note: This story includes mention of suicide. If you are struggling with suicide or your mental health, you are not alone. Resources are available here.
GREENSBURG, IN – The school resource officer’s alarm went off at 5 a.m. that Wednesday. It was still dark outside as Bruce Copple got dressed in his matching navy-blue khakis and windbreaker and made his first cup of coffee for the day, which he took with just a little bit of sugar.
The moon was still high in the sky as Copple drove his unmarked police car to the Greensburg Community School District campus. That morning, like every morning, he arrived at 6 a.m., long before anyone else, and walked through every empty hall of the building and the athletic fields outside, looking for anything — not just an intruder, but a leaking pipe, broken glass or even animals that had wandered inside — that may pose a safety threat.
Copple stopped at the district’s administration building for his daily briefing with the superintendent then headed for his favorite stop of the morning: Greensburg Elementary School. Picking up a stack of newspapers dropped outside the lobby, Copple was immediately greeted by children’s drawings of boats and a large banner exclaiming the building was “Home to the Pirates!” It was officially time for his second cup of coffee.
Just shortly before the clock hit 7:30 a.m. Copple, who has served as an SRO for 20 years and will be retiring at the end of the year, stationed himself in a corridor intersecting the three entrances of the school, the cafeteria doors behind him. It was time for his favorite part of his routine as SRO: saying hello to the students.
The doors opened and pre-school students ran in towards the cafeteria, swiftly followed by the older students enrolled in the Pre-K through 5th grade school. It was impossible for Copple to take more than three steps without being intercepted by a student’s hug.
Even though he has only been permanently stationed in Greensburg Elementary School for a year, Copple was able to remember almost all the students’ names as they walked through the doors. Quick to deliver a high five or fist bump to those passing by, some students took the opportunity to pull Copple off to the side.
One fifth grader demanded an answer. "Is this shirt blue?" she asked Copple. "My class is supposed to wear blue today, and my friend says this isn’t blue!"
“Well, I think that is definitely blue,” Copple responded. The fifth grader happily relayed his final decision to her peer, claiming that she had known she was right all along.
Another student, a third grader named Victoria, motioned Copple to lean close.
“You promised to walk me to my classroom,” she said.
Not wanting to go back on his word, Copple set off down the hall with the student. After a quick walk to the third-grade classroom, he wished the student good luck with her day. Victoria, of course, thanked him with a hug.
Copple is now in his 41st year in law enforcement, all of which he has spent serving in Greensburg. He spent the first 18 of his years in law enforcement working as a street cop. Copple served as an investigator for three years, mostly working on cases against youths — cases he believes “would make a lot of people quit the job and get out of it.” He said he wasn’t ready for the emotional attachment to people that his job as an SRO required.
“I wasn’t ready to get a birthday cake on my birthday,” Copple said. “I wasn’t ready to be thanked for being here. I wasn’t ready for the parents to call me at home going, ‘Hey, my kids being picked on can you help me?’ I wasn’t ready for all that stuff. Most people think this is just a 7:30 to 3:30 gig.”
Copple considers himself lucky. After four decades working in law enforcement — 23 of those serving as an SRO — he’s never gotten tired of working with students and their families. For Copple, being an SRO has always been about building relationships with people, not just combating violence in schools. On many nights he receives phone calls from parents who request anything from interventions with bullying to his appearance at their student’s birthday party.
Hired as an SRO just one year after the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, Copple remembers a time when his job was not overshadowed by fears of school shootings — before Sandy Hook, Uvalde and Parkland made national headlines. With retirement awaiting him at the end of the school year, Copple has watched how the field of school-based policing has evolved to focus on safety protocols and hardening school facilities against intruders.
Experts and advocates debate how the presence of SROs impacts the safety of schools. While institutions such as the National Association of School Resource Officers and the U.S. Department of Justice support placing SROs in schools, others such as the National Education Association oppose it, citing research that police presence can be damaging to students of color or students with disabilities. Research from the Center for Public Integrity found in some states, school policing disproportionately affected students with disabilities and students who identified as Black, Native American, or Latino.
However, research and case studies regarding if SROs violence in schools and lead to an increased chance of student arrests often conflict, leaving no clear consensus.
Since the 1990s, specifically following the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, state and federal governments have invested several billion dollars to support community and school policing.
However, the field of school policing has found itself under increased public scrutiny in recent years. Following the murder of George Floyd and corresponding national investigation into police violence in 2020, school districts — including those in Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland — voted to remove police officers from schools. In May 2021, the Monroe County Community School Corporation voted to disarm their SROs in the district, education board member April Hennessey saying that armed officers could disturb or trigger students and staffs who have complicated relationships with police.
Used to the rugged environment familiar to a street cop, where he would deal with felonies and have people attack him, Copple said he never expected to be working in schools. In 2000, Copple was introduced to school policing when he began leading a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions in the high school building. Since then, Copple has continued to do things he never would have imagined, from surprising a young student at his police-themed birthday party to delivering bags of food to students during the COVID-19 lockdown. Copple emotionally recalled how he was even able to walk one of his students halfway down the aisle at her wedding.
For the first five years of his career in the schools, Copple was the only SRO for the entire Greensburg Community School Corporation. With his office stationed out of the high school, he would often spend his days jumping back and forth between the four district buildings on campus, all within 1.2 miles of each other.
This past year, however, he decided to become fully stationed in the elementary school building following a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas in May 2022, which took the lives of 19 elementary school students and two teachers. The tragedy, which shocked SROs across the nation, convinced Copple to hire a fourth full-time officer for the district and move to permanently work in the elementary school.
Kara Holdsworth, principal of Greensburg Elementary School, has worked with Copple for all nine years of her employment in the district. Holdsworth described Copple as the “father of safety for Greensburg schools.” She said having SROs in the building makes herself, other faculty, students and community members feel safer.
"Copple has a great rapport with students and he builds his relationships,” Holdsworth said. “For lack of better words, we've not had a school resource officer in our building full time except for the last few years and a lot of times though, they get pulled in the morning. He's been here and that has been huge because students see him everyday and they don't just see him if we have to call him in to support us for some other reason.”
While everyday looks different for the officer, during the last few weeks of the school year Copple developed a new routine. After finding out a student who often stayed after school enjoyed completing puzzles, Copple started creating brain teasers for the student to complete when she finished her work in class. Each day the riddle was something different — anything from a word search to logic puzzles. Shortly before lunch, Copple gave her a handful of oddly shaped wooden blocks and challenged her to make the pieces form a “T” shape.
Copple said SROs wear different hats during their daily work: the safety hat and education hat. In addition to building relationships with students, Copple said his main aspiration in his work is to educate those around him. For instance, Copple started a partnership with Decatur County Memorial Hospital to train all district employees in CPR and “Stop the Bleed,” a nationwide course training people to immediately respond to life-threatening bleeding injuries, after a teacher experienced a dangerous chocking incident.
Several years ago, Copple decided to take his passion for education a step further: earning his workplace specialist teaching license, the license now framed and hanging on his office wall. Copple enrolled in an online course through Ball State University. While enrolled in the course, Copple was still working as a full time SRO. He recalled many late nights in his office writing essays and completing assignments —which he said his wife Paula was not pleased about. Copple planned to launch a criminal justice course for juniors and seniors at his high school. The course, which satisfies the district’s work-based learning experience requirement, allows students to explore their interests within emergency medicine and first responders' fields.
Greensburg High School senior Emily Coy took the class and said she enjoyed going into public and learning how to work with emergency medical services.
“It was thrilling,” Coy said. “Copple did a great job while he was here and he was always supportive of the kids and protecting them. That was his top priority and he filled that role very well.”
In a district of about 2,000 students, Copple said he connected with students, such as Emily, individually. However, less people in a rural town often means fewer resources for the school and surrounding community. For instance, Indianapolis Public Schools approved a $428 million operating budget for the 2023-34 academic year in March. Greensburg Community Schools on the other hand adopted a $28,173,201 budget last October.
Copple said he and many other SROs working in rural parts of the state face additional barriers to helping their students and families. For instance, Copple said he will occasionally have to personally drive students seeking mental health or substance abuse intervention at least an hour away to more populated areas such as Indianapolis and Bloomington. While Greensburg has a local hospital and guidance counseling center, he said appropriate mental health resources are not always available in the area.
Copple said pressure to improve school safety measures in recent years has also put significant financial strains on the small district. He said the district is currently looking to install new door security systems and add film to all classroom door windows to prevent people from seeing inside. Some experts value the school security industry — comprised of companies providing safety technology specifically focused on schools — at upwards of $3.1 billion. Implementing new security systems can be expensive, often costing districts tens of thousands of dollars a month.
“Some dollars are tougher on smaller districts like ours,” Copple said. “Even though we use a lot of wiring and stuff that we already have, we’re still looking at $400,000 per school. For us, it was a lot of money.”
Copple said growing attention to intruder safety resources and procedures has transformed his job responsibilities. As director of safety for the district, Copple now writes, trains and implements intruder safety protocols for the schools.
“It became, how do we harden our facilities without breaking the budgets?” Copple said. “How do we provide more training to our staff about locking down, sheltering and all the bad stuff we have to do? That’s not why I’m over here. I want to be in the classroom, I want to educate. But unfortunately [intruder safety] is part of it, so we have to do all these drills.”
An increase in school gun violence is something Copple and other SROs have had to grapple with. In 2022, Copple visited Columbine High School as part of an annual National Association of School Resource Officers conference hosted in Aurora, Colorado. Surrounded by other SROs, he visited a memorial recognizing the 20th year anniversary of a shooting at the school which left 12 students and one teacher dead. He said that the high school, which has become symbolic for gun violence across the country, looked just like any other school you would drive by across the country. Here, he listened to parents talk about the deaths of their children in the school, saying the visit reminded him how the tragedy — and many others like it — were preventable.
According to data from The Washington Post, there have been 386 school shootings since 1999, the year of the shooting at Columbine High School. Copple said for him, Columbine was “the first of modern times, but by no means the first.”
Copple said it is hard to gauge the impact Columbine has had on the culture surrounding school safety.
Copple said there are tough mental and physical impacts that come along with an SRO’s job. While there has never been a gun fired in his school, Copple recalled close calls, such as when a student brought a firearm into the classroom. Another time, Copple said an Copple said an employee committed suicide on school grounds with a firearm. Copple can still remember the details of this incident, pointing to the approximate location of where the occurred, which was visible from the school.
The grueling and unsettling parts of an SRO’s job can be difficult to grapple with, especially for younger officers, Copple said. Passionate about helping other SROs adjust and form connections with students in their work, Copple became an instructor for the National Association of School Resource Officers. While he has been on the NASRO leadership board for several years, Copple taught his first basic SRO training course in Indianapolis this past March. Present at the training were SROs from across Indiana from Fort Wayne to Seymour to Bloomington.
NASRO emphasizes a “Triad Model” for SROs, where officers are trained to fulfill three types of roles: a law enforcement officer, a public safety educator and an informal counselor or mentor. To train officers to fulfill informal counselor or mentor duties, NASRO includes a lecture on “trauma informed practices” in each basic SRO training. When teaching this lesson, Copple began by asking the officers to engage in an exercise.
Handing each officer five post-it notes, he asked everyone to write down different things they do each day, but without any details. For instance, rather than writing “I ate breakfast”, one would write “I ate.” Copple then asked each officer to switch post-its and try to order each post-it in the sequence they believed the other officer intended it.
Within a few minutes the officers discussed the orders of the post-it notes, and one thing became clear: the actions were often organized in an order the original officer did not intend. Just like the officers made assumptions about each other, SROs can be quick to assume things about their students, Copple said. Many of the students they will encounter in their daily work might not have the basic daily routines that one might assume, such as having a bed to sleep in, being able to brush their teeth or eating three meals a day. Realizing how students’ lives can be vastly different from their own was crucial to the job, he said.
“The goal is to never arrest a kid,” Copple said to officers in the training. “You need to love on them, get to know them and take care of them.”
In June, Copple retired from law enforcement. He said the last several days of the school year were “very emotional and tough” as he said goodbye to the students and staff of Greensburg Community Schools. During his last week, Copple said faculty had a small celebration for his last days of work.
“The schools were awesome,” Copple said. “It was pretty amazing. They took good care of me.”
While he plans to continue teaching with NASRO in the upcoming years, he said he “really has no idea what retirement will look like.” However, he has some ideas.
He would like to send his son and daughter-in-law to visit Scotland and London this summer. Copple also dreams of one day driving with his wife in his Chevrolet Corvette Sports Car down Route 66 all the way to California. While he plans to stay in Greensburg for the foreseeable future, he hopes to not have to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, instead saying “6 a.m. would be nice.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect a district employee committed suicide on school grounds with a firearm.
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