As part of recent demands to “defund the police,” some have argued that school resource officers (SROs) should not have a place in our nation’s schools. Some school districts, including those in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Denver, and Portland, OR, have recently cut ties with the police. Is this a viable solution or a knee jerk reaction? As a mom to middle school and high school students who both have SROs in their schools (or did when they were actually in school), this is an issue that has caught my interest. Read on to learn more about the SROs’ role in school security, the controversies surrounding them, and some suggestions for strengthening the SRO program.
SROs: Then and Now
SROs are career law enforcement officers deployed by police departments or sheriff’s offices who work in a community-oriented policing assignment in schools. The first SRO was placed in a school in the 1950s and the program gradually expanded in the decades to follow. The number of SROs increased significantly beginning in the 1990s. This was a result of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) funding the SRO program in thousands of schools in response to a surge in school shootings, culminating with the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. The DOJ expanded its support of the program even further following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018. Today, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) estimates that approximately 20% of all K-12 schools (public and private) nationwide are served by SROs.
As the program has expanded nationally, the role of the SRO has also evolved. Initially, the goal of the program was to nurture positive relationships between the police and school-aged youth. SROs performed their duties in plain clothes. Over time, SROs began wearing police uniforms and carrying the full complement of police gear, including guns. And although relationship building remains a key component of the SRO’s job function, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) defines the full role of today’s SRO as follows:
- Law enforcer – serve as the main security arm of a school by addressing unlawful student behavior and protecting students and school staff from outside threats
- Informal counselor – develop positive relationships with students and connect them with community resources
- Educator – train and educate school staff members and students on school safety issues
- Emergency manager – work with school administrators and first responders to develop and implement comprehensive safety plans
Jason Neidig, a SRO at a middle school in Aberdeen, MD, says his role is two-fold.
"The number one priority in the school is the safety and protection of the students and staff. That’s the reason, the number one reason, that school resource officers are in the school. The second part of that is building those relationships with those students, bridging that gap."
Many argue that having law enforcement officers in schools provides an effective deterrent to criminal behavior by students and to outside threats, as well as providing an effective mechanism for addressing unlawful behavior when it does occur. However, having law enforcement officers policing our nation’s schools has also stirred up controversy. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of having a law enforcement presence in schools and some of the criticisms of the SRO program.
Schools, particularly middle schools and high schools, can be violent places. Based on the 2018 National Crime Victimization Survey, the rate of violent victimization of students at school (24 victimizations per 1,000 students) was more than double the rate of violent victimization outside of schools. Also during 2018, approximately 65% of our nation’s schools reported incidents of serious violent crimes, including weapons use, threats, robberies, and sexual assaults. In light of these statistics, the DOJ COPS Office School Safety Working Group - comprised of representatives from law enforcement organizations nationwide - recently published a report detailing 10 essential steps to improve school safety. One of the working group’s key recommendations is the presence of school-based law enforcement.
“The value of an SRO goes beyond responding to critical incidents. They mentor and educate students and build trust, which may have a profound impact on the school’s ability to prevent targeted violence and other maladaptive behavior.”
The following key findings are from a study this summer of 1,150 teachers, principals, and district leaders about the need for SROs:
- Most educators are in support of maintaining school-based policing programs.
- Most educators support SROs in schools to protect against outside threats; however, nearly 1/3 also want protection against students.
SROs, who receive specialized training on responding to acts of violence, can provide the first line of defense when violence occurs in schools. Anecdotally, there are several documented incidents of SROs saving lives during violent school episodes and being hailed as heroes. In 2018, SRO Mark Dallas sprang into action and took down an active shooter in an Illinois high school, preventing any injuries to students and staff. Also in 2018, SRO Blaine Gaskill engaged an active shooter in a Maryland high school after two students were shot, preventing further violence. SRO Jimmy Long took an active school shooter in Florida into custody after one student was shot in the ankle.
Having a law enforcement presence at the school in a time of crisis has had unmeasurable value in many instances. John Castillo, whose son was killed in a 2019 school shooting, views SROs as a necessary part of the school environment. In response to Denver’s recent announcement to cut ties with local police, he responded:
“We're creating a divide saying that police are bad. We want them out and I don't know how that's building community."
SROs often build relationships with students, serving as a valuable resource to students, teachers, and administrators and helping to solve problems. By infusing substance abuse and violence prevention messaging in schools, they play an important educational role. SROs are also vital components of multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams in schools. Through building relationships with students, SROs can help identify students who may pose a danger to the school and can intervene to help connect those students with appropriate resources. SROs can also visit students and their families at home with the goal of working together to solve problems.
According to NASRO, SROs should not be involved in disciplinary issues, as those are best handled by teachers and administrators. NASRO indicates that there has been widespread acceptance of this principle and notes that juvenile arrest rates nationwide decreased during a period when the number of SROs was increasing.
Critics argue that school-based policing fuels the school-to-prison pipeline for youth of color – the cycle of using arrests and court referrals as a method for disciplining students. While NASRO indicates that SROs should not be involved in low-level disciplinary issues, critics say that is exactly what is happening in today’s schools. Some opponents of school-based law enforcement draw a parallel between the increase in SROs and the rise in zero-tolerance policies in schools that call for strict penalties for relatively minor offenses.
Recent data show that schools with SROs are and in 43 states and the District of Columbia, Black students are disproportionately arrested at school compared to other students. SRO opponents argue that school-based incidents should be handled as school matters instead of law enforcement matters. The disproportionately harsh treatment of students of color can result in fewer educational opportunities, and eventually, fewer employment prospects.
SROs have also come under scrutiny for using excessive force, including a 2019 incident in New Mexico where a SRO shoved an 11-year-old girl into a wall after she took more milk than allowed. You may also be familiar with rather shocking news headlines about scared straight tactics used by SROs, such as the arrest of an eight-year-old Key West, FL special needs student for hitting his teacher. The presence of SROs in schools also came under intense scrutiny when SRO Scot Peterson failed to enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as a gunman opened fire in 2018, killing 17 students and staff.
Although the debate about the value of SROs in schools has been simmering for years, it has recently boiled over as so many have united around the social justice movement currently sweeping our nation. Let’s take a look at some possible ways to address the concerns brought to light because of this movement and explore steps for improving the SRO program rather than dismantling it.
The Path Forward
Protests in support of racial equality have rocked our nation. Statues of historical figures tied to the Confederacy and slavery are being dismantled. Police departments are reforming their use-of-force policies. Cities are reallocating funding from police departments to youth and social services programs. Considering the change that is currently sweeping our nation, what can be done within the SRO program to ensure the program’s effectiveness while also protecting racial equality? Below are a few recommendations:
- Evaluate programs. It is imperative to systematically collect and analyze data about the outcome of programs to determine their effectiveness. Very few studies have been conducted to determine if SROs are effective in their mission - improving school safety - and the studies that exist have conflicting findings. Now is the time to study the program at a national level and to measure its successes and failures.
- Review policies and procedures. Recent attention to excessive force by SROs and racial disparity in the treatment of students has uncovered the need for law enforcement and schools to collaboratively take a hard look at their policies and procedures and consider making changes. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the nation, is currently reviewing its school police practices and is gathering input from students, families, and staff to inform its recommendations. Superintendent Austin Beutner said, "We cannot ignore legitimate concerns and criticism that students and other members in the school community have about all forms of law enforcement."
- Expand training. Implicit bias training, which aims to make officers aware of their unconscious biases and provide tools for altering patterns of thinking, should be included in any SRO training regime.
With many of our nation’s schools closed for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic, there is no time like the present to take a hard look at the SRO program. What’s working well and what adjustments need to be made? We can’t allow the recent criticisms of the SRO program to go unaddressed. However, dismantling the program without trying to closely evaluate it and address areas of concern, could have a lasting impact on the safety of our schools.