Should We Defund School Resource Officers?

Schools with SROs have higher rates of suspension and expulsion

Posted Jun 29, 2020

This is the inaugural post in the Net Effects blog, in which I cover sociological research that I find interesting or important. Today’s post is coauthored with Jeremy Prim, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Davis. Jeremy’s doctoral dissertation examines antecedents and consequences of school resource officers. 

Should We Defund School Resource Officers? 

Marc Cooper, Pxhere
Police with Canine
Source: Marc Cooper, Pxhere

For perhaps the first time in modern history, large numbers of Americans are asking what we need police for, and whether we need them at all. Here, we take on these questions as they pertain to the role of police in public schools.

What are School Resource Officers?

School Resource Officers (SROs) are police officers stationed at public schools. They are tasked with a variety of responsibilities, foremost among them ensuring school safety and security, but secondarily they may also enforce school conduct and disciplinary policies, conduct drug awareness, education, and prevention, and train students in conflict resolution and crime awareness.

Where are they deployed?

While the first SRO reported for duty in 1953 in Flint, Michigan,[1] they did not become commonplace until the passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,[2] which funded their widespread deployment across the country. Today, nearly half (44%) of American public schools are patrolled by an SRO.[3] But they are not distributed randomly, and Jeremy’s research combines two national datasets[4] to learn more about where they are located.

Consistent with other research demonstrating how communities of color bear disproportionate burdens of policing,[5] Jeremy finds that schools with a larger proportion of Black students are more likely to have SROs. Specifically, for every percentage point increase in the percent of the student body that is Black, the likelihood the school is patrolled by an SRO increases by three percent. This effect holds after adjusting for school size, locale (urban, rural, etc.), and school poverty level (percent receiving free lunches). It also holds even after adjusting for multiple indicators of safety problems in the school, including its crime rate as well as the presence of metal detectors, security cameras, dog sniffing, contraband sweeps, uniform requirements, and strict dress codes.  What else, besides pervasive structural racism, could explain this finding?

How do they affect the schools they patrol?

Jeremy’s research is also the first national panel study of the consequences of extensive deployment of SROs, which coincided with widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies following the 1994 passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act. These policies mandated suspension or expulsion for often minor infractions such as uniform violations. So during the same period that schools were embracing these draconian policies, they were inviting SROs to enforce them.

Jeremy finds that, compared to schools without them, schools with SROs on campus suspend students 67% more frequently. This effect holds after adjusting for school size, urbanicity, poverty levels, crime rate, as well as the use of security devices and policies, and is consistent with other smaller studies. For example, one study found that after adding SROs, school suspensions and expulsions increased by 21%; in a school of 1,500 students, this would be the difference between 180 and 218 suspensions or expulsions in a single school year.[6] This is not because they decided to handle serious violence differently, but because SROs often elevate less serious incidents, treating a shove as a criminal assault[7] and thereby increasing the overall number of arrests made at school.[8] The discretionary nature of these charges increases the likelihood that they are disproportionately leveled toward youth of color[9] as part of the school to prison pipeline.[10]

It’s not clear that SROs make schools any safer either: some studies find that their presence is associated with fewer weapons arrests[11] but others find no differences.[12] Their role in preventing active shooters is also questionable.[13] But what is clear is that they increase the number of students who are expelled, students who subsequently fall behind academically, score lower on standardized tests,[14] and face greater risk of more serious offenses[15] with increased contact with the juvenile justice system.[16] Moreover, suspended and expelled students are not the only ones who suffer: students with more schoolmates who are suspended tend to perform worse on both reading and math, particularly in schools with low levels of violence (e.g., where students may be suspended for less serious offenses).[17] 

So what can be done?

If schools removed SROs from their hallways, what could replace them? They could hire more nurses, social workers, and teacher aides. They could also invest more in extra-curricular programs and make them more accessible to students from lower socioeconomic and historically underrepresented minority backgrounds.  Research shows that these programs can reduce behaviors like hyperactivity and withdrawal instead of criminalizing them. For example, one randomized controlled trial found that an equestrian program significantly improved socio-emotional regulation among youth who had been referred to the program by school counselors.[18] We hope school districts consider alternatives like these as they rethink their relationships with police departments.

Jeremy Prim
Source: Jeremy Prim

 Coauthor: Jeremy Prim, sociology PhD candidate at UC Davis (jkprim@ucdavis.edu)

References

[1] Weiler, Spencer C., and Martha Cray. 2011. “Police at School: A Brief History and Current Status of School Resource Officers.” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 84(4):160–63.

[2]  Weiler, Spencer C., and Martha Cray. 2011. “Police at School: A Brief History and Current Status of School Resource Officers.” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 84(4):160–63.

[3] Diliberti, Melissa, Michael Jackson, Samuel Correa, and Zoe Padgett. 2019. “Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety in U.S. Public Schools: Findings From the School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2017-18.” Retrieved June 18, 2020 (https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2019061).

[4]The School Survey on Crime and Safety from 1999-2015 (NCES). U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics; Common Core of Data 1999- 2015 (NCES). U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics

[5] Kupchik, Aaron. 2010. Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear. New York: New York University Press.

[6] Fisher, Benjamin W., and Emily A. Hennessy. "School resource officers and exclusionary discipline in US high schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Adolescent Research Review 1, no. 3 (2016): 217-233.

[7] Chongmin Na & Denise C. Gottfredson (2013) Police Officers in Schools: Effects on School Crime and the Processing of Offending Behaviors, Justice Quarterly, 30:4, 619-650, DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2011.615754

[8]Travis III, Lawrence F., and Julie Kieran Coon. 2005. The Role of Law Enforcement in Public School Safety: A National Survey. National Institute of Justice .

[9]Hirschfield, Paul J. 2008. “Preparing for Prison?: The Criminalization of School Discipline in the USA.” Theoretical Criminology 12(1):79–101.

[10]Turner, E. O., and A. J. Beneke. 2020. “‘Softening’ School Resource Officers: The Extension of Police Presence in Schools in an Era of Black Lives Matter, School Shootings, and Rising Inequality.” Race Ethnicity and Education 23(2):221–40.; Winn, Maisha T. 2018. Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education through Restorative Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.; Ryan, Joseph B., Antonis Katsiyannis, Jennifer M. Counts, and Jill C. Shelnut. 2018. “The Growing Concerns Regarding School Resource Officers.” Intervention in School and Clinic 53(3):188–92.; May, David C., Raymond Barranco, Ethan Stokes, Angela A. Robertson, and Stacy H. Haynes. 2018. “Do School Resource Officers Really Refer Juveniles to the Juvenile Justice System for Less Serious Offenses?” Criminal Justice Policy Review 29(1):89–105.

[11] Theriot, Matthew T. "School resource officers and the criminalization of student behavior." Journal of Criminal Justice 37, no. 3 (2009): 280-287.

[12] Chongmin Na & Denise C. Gottfredson (2013) Police Officers in Schools: Effects on School Crime and the Processing of Offending Behaviors, Justice Quarterly, 30:4, 619-650, DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2011.615754; James & McCallian 2013

[13] Jonson, Cheryl Lero. 2017. “Preventing School Shootings: The Effectiveness of Safety Measures.” Victims & Offenders 12(6):956–73.

[14] Arcia, Emily. 2006. “Achievement and Enrollment Status of Suspended Students: Outcomes in a Large, Multicultural School District.” Education and Urban Society 38(3):359–69.; Raffaele Mendez, Linda M. 2003. “Predictors of Suspension and Negative School Outcomes: A Longitudinal Investigation.” New Directions for Youth Development 2003(99):17–33.; Suh, Suhyun, Jingyo Suh, and Irene Houston. 2007. “Predictors of Categorical At-Risk High School Dropouts.” Journal of Counseling & Development 85(2):196–203.

[15] Rios, Victor M. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: New York University Press.

[16]Christle, Christine A., Kristine Jolivette, and C. Michael Nelson. 2005. “Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline: Identifying School Risk and Protective Factors for Youth Delinquency.” Exceptionality 13(2):69–88.; Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A, (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center. Retrieved from http://justicecenter.csg.org/resource

[17] Perry, Brea L., and Edward W. Morris. 2014. “Suspending Progress: Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Punishment in Public Schools.” American Sociological Review 79(6):1067–87.

[18] Pendry, Patricia, Alexa M. Carr, Annelise N. Smith, and Stephanie M. Roeter. "Improving adolescent social competence and behavior: A randomized trial of an 11-week equine facilitated learning prevention program." The journal of primary prevention 35, no. 4 (2014): 281-293.