This article was written by Emeline Benson, a policy analysis intern for Libertas Institute.
At the beginning of 2022, an eleven-year-old boy with autism was faced with two counts of assault for pushing a classmate during PE class. His PE teacher claimed it was not assault, but the school resource officer (SRO) got involved and charged the student. This may not be a norm in school policing, but reports like this have brought national attention to the relatively new, and likewise newly controversial, practice of hiring SROs.
SRO programs were widely introduced across American K-12 schools after the tragic Columbine school shooting in 1999. Initially, the primary purpose of these programs was to enhance school safety for students and deter trespassers. However, empirical evidence concludes that the presence of SROs has not deterred school shootings across America.
Instead, reports have shown an increase in student arrests, suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary tactics. These studies show evidence that SROs lead to a decrease in violence within schools. Yet, the question is whether interactions between young students and law enforcement officers is doing more harm than good. Alarmingly, studies have found that minority students—including students with disabilities—are more likely to receive harsher discipline for minor offenses. In fact, like the eleven-year-old boy with autism, Utah children with disabilities are twice as likely to be disciplined and suspended.
Many refer to this phenomenon as the school-to-prison pipeline where most arrests are actually students under age fifteen. One natural experiment found that high suspension rates in K-12 schools can increase the likelihood of post-graduate arrests for non-violent crimes committed by all students—not just those who are suspended.
It is important to note faults in the current SRO program itself across the United States. For instance, states—including Utah—do not require SROs to attend specific training such as adolescent development or de-escalation preparation. Even surveys of SROs conclude that only 39% received instruction in child trauma, and about one-fifth of the respondents admit they are not trained to work in schools.
When considering the subject of school safety, one should take a step back and ask what is the primary goal of such safety measures. If the objective is a decline in bullying and suicide rates, research shows that alternatives such as trauma/mental health programs, or even inclusive and anti-bullying policies, can provide a more poignant and direct positive change.
On the other hand, parents in some cities may need assurance about gun safety specifically. They would feel better seeing metal detectors, bag checks, or even bulletproof windows at their child’s school. The problem is, sometimes an absence of violence within school walls is at odds with good faculty-student relations. In order to decrease violence, faculty and SROs become disciplinary forces who put punishment before building trust and good relations with the students.
Aside from providing visible law enforcement and disciplinary roles in schools, the two billion federal dollars worth of SROs have often served as informal counselors and even educators. That money could be better spent hiring real, professional counselors. Students then might not tend to resort to committing petty crimes in adulthood.
Some districts across America have already applied alternatives to having SROs in their schools and are seeing positive results. Some of these alternatives include practicing restorative or transformative justice, which focuses on mending hurt relationships rather than jumping to harsh punishments. Another alternative enacted in a K-8 school in Roxbury, MA, used SRO resources to advance arts programs. The school quickly saw improvement in grades and its social climate. Other schools from Bronx, NY, to Denver, CO, have decided to replace SROs with security agents who stay at the door. Similarly, Minneapolis schools now employ safety staff instead of SROs to act as guides and student advocates instead of disciplinary forces.
This is not to say law enforcement should never be used. Some schools do not employ specific SROs but keep close contact with local officers and stations in case of emergencies.
Clearly, solutions likely depend on district location and the unique concerns of specific communities. This research-based dialogue must continue as we seek the optimal solution to these pressing problems for the sake of student safety and their overall well-being.