Having law enforcement officers in schools is not a new concept. The first school resource officer (SRO) was assigned to a school in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s. But after several high-profile acts of school violence, such as what occurred at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School, SROs are more commonplace than ever before.
In 2003, there were nearly 20,000 SROs. The National Center for Education Statistics recently estimated that in 2013 there were as many as 30,000. As our nation begins another school year, it is quite possible that the number of SROs will continue to rise.
One measure of how some schools’ priorities have changed is that, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, 1.6 million children attend a school that has an SRO but not a school counselor. Further, minority students are more likely than white students to attend a school where an SRO is present but there is no school counselor.
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The reasons why schools have SROs vary, ranging from attempting to keep students safe from intruders, to taking a proactive measure to reduce crime in schools, to trying to promote a more orderly school environment, to fostering more trust among police, youth and communities. There is still a dearth of research substantiating whether SROs actually create safer, more orderly learning environments for students or foster more trust. Further, too many of us still fail to fully appreciate the serious repercussions of having more law enforcement involvement in our schools.
Not only have we witnessed shocking events, such as when an SRO in South Carolina flipped a student and her desk to the ground for failing to hand over her cellphone, but increased reliance on SROs also appears to involve more youth in the justice system, fueling the “school-to-prison pipeline.” I recently published an article in the Washington University Law Review called “Students, Police and the School-to-Prison Pipeline” that empirically examines this trend.
Analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education, I found that a law enforcement officer’s regular presence at a school (at least once a week) is predictive of greater odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for committing various offenses, including lower-level offenses such as fighting without a weapon or making a threat without use of a weapon.
Further, these findings hold true after taking into account many other factors that might influence school officials’ decisions to refer students to law enforcement for committing an offense. Those factors include: (a) the general level of criminal activity at the school; (b) state statutes that require schools to report students to law enforcement for committing certain offenses; (c) the general level of disciplinary disorder a school experiences; (d) the school principal’s perception of the level of crime that exists in the neighborhood in which the school resides; and (e) other student demographic variables and school characteristics.
While the data I analyzed do not contain information regarding how many of these students were actually arrested and incarcerated, it is rational to conclude that if more students are referred to law enforcement for committing certain offenses, more students will be arrested and, perhaps, incarcerated. Indeed, according to data from the Office of Civil Rights, during the 2011—12 school year, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement, and there were 92,000 school-based arrests.
Involving students in the justice system has several undesirable, long-term consequences for students, their families and our nation. Empirical studies confirm that incarcerating a child often leads to mental health problems, a reinforcement of violent attitudes and behaviors, limited educational, vocational, housing and military opportunities, and future involvement in the justice system. It also costs our nation billions of dollars a year, money that could be much better spent on resources to improve the lives of children and their families.
Arresting a child, even if it does not ultimately lead to incarceration, also has long-term negative consequences. An arrest can traumatize and stigmatize children. It often leads to lower test scores, a decreased likelihood that the student will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood of future involvement in the justice system.
It is critical to remember that there are more effective, evidence-based initiatives to create safe environments conducive to learning that do not involve SROs or other punitive-based measures. These initiatives include restorative justice, School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, social and emotional learning, and improving the classroom instruction and management skills of teachers. Such initiatives do more to create safe learning climates where students thrive than strict, punitive measures ever could.
But if schools and communities do decide that SROs are necessary to maintain a safe learning environment, it is critical that schools and SROs enter into memoranda of understanding to ensure that SROs do not become involved in routine discipline matters that educators should handle.
Further, it is important that school officials, teachers and SROs receive training regarding how to hold students accountable for bad behavior without involving them in the justice system. This training should also include ways to de-escalate tense situations without using force and an emphasis on fairness and equity toward all students, including minority, disabled and LGBT students, who too often are over-represented in the negative trends associated with the school-to-prison pipeline.
As we begin another school year, I hope that school leaders, teachers, parents and other members of the community come together to consider ways to create safe learning environments for children — ways that do not end up pushing more students out of school and into the justice system. Our children and nation deserve better.
Jason P. Nance, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and the associate director for education law and policy at the Center on Children and Families. He also was the reporter for the American Bar Association’s Joint Task Force on Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline. A former public school teacher, he is the author of numerous articles on education law and policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-273-0992.