Teachers, SROs Must Learn to Manage Students Without Using Justice System

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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 nance@law.ufl.edu or 352-273-0992.

3 thoughts on “Teachers, SROs Must Learn to Manage Students Without Using Justice System

  1. Community Involvement, Community Involvement, Community Involvement. As long as there is a separation or divide between the community, the schools, and law enforcement, there will be no relief to the issues that our young people face. The schools are trying to protect kids and staff the best they can. The parents are blaming the schools (not all parents) for not properly educating our youth and upset when the school calls them regarding their child and behavior problems. Teachers are there to educate our youth, but in many cases they end up parenting our youth. We all know the state of our current law enforcement in this country and how the majority of youth (especially youth of color or youth that live in impoverished or low income neighborhoods) feel about law enforcement in any form. If we don’t find a way to come together it will all fall apart.

  2. I’m glad there is an SRO in my child’s high school. With the amount of drugs and associated crime that has hit my small, rural town it is comforting to know he is there. Teens need to know and understand that there are consequences for behavior. If you choose to break the law by using or selling drugs, having a weapon, or injure someone in a fight you must accept the consequences of those actions. Too many think there are no consequences any more. Enough is enough. Do the crime, do the time. That’s life.

    • Melissa, Professor Nance is not referring to serious crimes like the ones you refer to in your response. The problem is that the presence of SRO’s has led to the arrest of students for misdemeanor acts that include school fights, disorderly conduct, disrupting public school, and other related minor offenses that albeit make us mad, they do not scare us. I am judge and my county has had SROs since 1995. When they were placed in the schools, the number of arrests each year went from 49 (the year before) to nearly 1,400 in 2004. Here is the rub, 92% of those arrests were for misdemeanors. The felony arrests never increased. In other words, the officers acted like officers on street patrol and we replaced school discipline by administrators with law enforcement. This began a spiraling decline in graduation rates that by 2004 had reached a low of 58%. As goes graduation, so goes crime and thus our juvenile cfrime rate increased (and this is no sssurprise because there are plenty of studies that show the strong relationship between graduation and crime in communities). So, in 2004, we got together and created the first school justice partnership that restricted SROs from arresting students on a majority of the misdemeanors and we replaced them with educational alternatives backed by the juvenile court’s diversion division. Now, what you may like about this is that it preserved the presence of SROs to protect the campus from weapons and drugs coming on campus, and especially an active shooter. It would be very difficult for us now to remove SROs because our school based arrests are now down by 91% (they only arrest kids for felonies) and our graduation rates have increased every year by 30%. The SROs are specially trained not only to protect, but on how to keep kids in school and out of the courts and onto graduation. An example of our problem in removing SROs is that we did just that in our middle schools in 2008 when the economy tanked, and guess what, the number of arrests in the middle schools increased sharply that year. We had to return the SROs the following school year to bring it down. Why? Because the administrators in those schools called 911 when kids acted out and what they got were untrained police in matters involving adolescense. Anyway, my humble opinion in reading the professor’s essay followed by your response is that both are correct, but both in need of some adjustment. We have to be careful of extremes. When we removed all SROs in our middle schools the arrests went up. When were arresting kids on misdemeanor offenses the graduation rates plummeted and crime increased. I think somewhere in the middle is the goal for those schools with serious crime issues that involve violence and drugs; that is, SRO’s who are well trained to handle only those serious matters, not that ones that make us mad.