The Impact of School Policing

March 11, 2019

 

 

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the issue of police in schools began to receive more attention. Some have argued in favor of assigning more armed police officers to schools, and even arming teachers in hopes of deterring future mass shootings. Indeed, the Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety suggests that states and school districts consider both of these strategies.1

 

Two main claims made by proponents of increased policing are that School Resource Officers (SROs) can control and prevent crime among students, and prevent or thwart armed attacks on schools (i.e., school shootings).2 Yet the existing evidence for SROs increasing safety is mixed at best, with strong evidence of unintended harmful consequences that come with SRO programs, including thrusting students into the criminal justice system and perpetuating racial inequality.*

 

Let’s take a look at the research.

 

Does the presence of police reduce student crime?

 

There is no clear empirical basis for the claim that SROs reduce student crime rates. While several research studies have considered whether the presence of SROs predicts lower rates of school crime, this is difficult to study, since one cannot randomly assign SROs to schools and evaluate differences across them.3 Similarly, one must be careful when comparing schools with and without SROs, since schools that are more dangerous to begin with might respond by adding SROs. Given these difficulties, the evidence base is thin.

 

While some well-designed studies suggest that the presence of SROs prevents student crime4, a greater number of studies, each of which uses credible methods to compare schools with and without SROs5, suggest that there is either no impact on student crime rates or that addition of SROs is associated with additional student misconduct (once taking into account preexisting school conditions). These inconsistent results might be due, in part, to variation in what SROs do.

 

One recent study finds that, while schools with SROs report more crimes than do schools without SROs, overall, the difference is particularly large among schools where SROs perform only law enforcement roles, rather than engage in mentoring or other tasks as well.6

 

Do school police prevent mass shootings?

 

When it comes to the goal of preventing mass shootings, we also know very little. This is because it is difficult to know how to prevent events that happen rarely. Thankfully, despite public fears and media attention, school shootings are indeed very rare.

 

There were 20 homicides of students at schools across the U.S. in the 2014-2015 school year, the most recent year reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In comparison, there were 1,148 homicides of youth ages 5-18 outside of school during that same school year, illustrating how relatively rare it is that students suffer violent deaths in school.7

 

While some school shootings have occurred in schools without SROs or other armed security present (e.g., Newtown), others occurred in schools with such protections in place (e.g., Columbine, Parkland, Santa Fe). As a result, we have little empirical evidence on whether or how SROs may or may not be able to prevent such horrific events.8

 

The costs of increased policing in schools are real

 

While there is no conclusive evidence that SROs reduce crime among students or prevent mass shootings, the research shows that the potential costs to students and communities are real. Evidence shows that the presence of SROs can mean increased rates of arrests of students for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct or simple assault, resulting in greater numbers of children than necessary being exposed to the justice system.9

 

Efforts are being made to reduce this harm of policing in schools. In particular, The National Association of School Resource Officers advocates for training for all SROs, including training in de-escalation and other tactics to avoid arrest unless school safety is being threatened.10 Yet the available evidence still suggests that the presence of SROs results in greater likelihood of justice system involvement for youth.

 

Research also shows that schools with SROs tend to have higher rates of exclusionary school discipline than do other, comparable, schools. One recent meta-analysis (a method used to statistically analyze and summarize findings of prior empirical studies) finds that the presence of SROs is associated with greater use of exclusionary discipline such as suspension.11 Research suggests that even when SROs are not directly involved in school discipline, their presence can shift schools’ practices in subtle ways that make exclusionary discipline more likely.12

 

Importantly, youth of color are considerably more likely than white youth to experience these harms. A large volume of research demonstrates consistently that youth of color are at significantly greater risk of exclusionary punishment, and that this discrepancy is not accounted for by different rates of student misbehavior.13 Youth of color are also more likely to be arrested at school and suffer the consequences of an arrest record.14

 

Moreover, SRO programs are very expensive. To the extent that funding SRO programs means that evidence-based school crime reduction programs, such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports or Socio-Emotional Learning programs, go unimplemented, this would mean missed opportunities to pursue strategies shown to be effective, based on presumptions of the effectiveness of policing.15

 

The presence of police can make schools less inclusive

 

One other branch of research on schools is relevant here: that on school social climate. Scholars studying student behavior have found that students are less likely to misbehave, including criminal behavior, in schools with inclusive social climates. These are schools where students feel valued, respected, listened to, and part of a community.16 

 

While not representative of SROs nationally, a number of qualitative studies have found that the presence of SROs can make schools less inclusive social climates in subtle ways. In my prior work, for example, I found that well-intentioned SROs can still influence schools to be somewhat more focused on law and order and less focused on students’ social and emotional wellbeing.17 Other studies have uncovered abusive treatment at the hands of SROs, showing clear negative effects on school social climate and students’ bonds to schools.18

 

In other words, despite their care for students’ wellbeing and the best intentions toward them, the presence of police in schools can sometimes undermine effective student behavior management strategies.

 

There is much that we still don’t understand about policing in schools. With no solid evidence that SROs reduce either student crime or risk of mass school shootings, claims that more policing is the solution are unsubstantiated.

 

But there is evidence that the presence of SROs results in criminalization of routine discipline issues, with students being sent to juvenile court rather than to the principal’s office. The evidence also shows that most schools are better off investing in evidence-based practices that build students’ social and emotional competence and build better school climates.

 

Proponents of SRO programs typically argue that SROs can effectively mentor students.19  Certainly, additional mentoring is beneficial for students. But using SROs as mentors comes with risk, since it means that the mentor has information about a student or his/her family that would not otherwise be available to law enforcement.

 

Moreover, research demonstrates that youth younger than 16 tend to have relatively poor understandings of their legal rights20, which raises important questions about the extent to which most students understand the legal risks to themselves, family members, or friends that may result if they confide in SROs acting as mentors. Further, it is not at all clear why we should expect SROs to be more effective as mentors compared to social workers, school psychologists, or counselors with extensive training in child development.

 

Whatever decisions school districts make should be informed by actual evidence, not presumptions.

 

Aaron Kupchik is Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The Real School Safety Problem: The Long-Term Consequences of Harsh School Punishment and Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear.

 

*In this article, the term School Resource Officer (SRO) refers to all types of sworn law enforcement officers stationed in schools, including School Police Officers (employed by a school district) and School Resource Officers (commissioned by a law enforcement agency and stationed in a school). 

 

 

Download the PDF version of this article here.

 

 

[1] https://www2.ed.gov/documents/school-safety/school-safety-report.pdf

[2] School Resource Officer (SRO) in this article is a generic term referring to all police officers stationed in schools. It is often used to refer to both School Police Officers (employed by a school district) and School Resource Officer (commissioned by a law enforcement agency and stationed in a school).

[3] Brown, Benjamin (2018) “Evaluations of School Policing Programs in the U.S.” In Deakin et al. (eds.) The Palgrave International Handbook of School Discipline, Surveillance and Social Control. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

[4] Owens, Emily G. “Testing the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 36: 11-37

[5] Anderson, Kenneth Alonzo (2018) “Policing and Middle School: An evaluation of a statewide school resource officer policy.” Middle Grades Review 4: Article 7; Crawford, Charles, and Ronald Burns (2015) “Preventing School Violence: Assessing armed guardians, school policy, and context.” Policing: An international journal of police strategies & management 38: 631-647; Na, Chongmin, and Denise Gottfredson. (2013). “Police Officers in Schools: Effects on School Crime and the Processing of Offending Behaviors.” Justice Quarterly 30: 619-650; Tillyer, Marie Skubak, Bonnie S. Fisher, and Pamela Wilcox (2011) “The Effects of School Crime Prevention on Students’ Violent Victimization, Risk Perception and Fear of Crime: A multilevel opportunity perspective.” Justice Quarterly 28: 249-277.

[6] Devlin, Deanna N., and Denise C. Gottfredson (2018) “The Roles of Police Officers in Schools: Effects on the recording and reporting of crime.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 16: 208-223.

[7] A school-associated violent death is defined as "a homicide, suicide, or legal intervention (involving a law enforcement officer), in which the fatal injury occurred on the campus of a functioning elementary or secondary school in the United States," while the victim was on the way to or from regular sessions at school, or while the victim was attending or traveling to or from an official school-sponsored event.

https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_228.10.asp

[8] Congressional Research Service (2018) School Resource Officers: Issues for Congress. R45251.

[9]Teske, Steven A., and J. Brian Huff (2011) “The Court’s Role in Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
Juvenile and Family Justice Today Winter 2011: 14-17; Na and Gottfredson (2013).

[10] https://nasro.org/training/nasro-training-courses/

[11] Fisher, Benjamin W., and Emily A. Hennessy (2016) “School Resource Officers and Exclusionary Discipline in U.S. High Schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Adolescent Research Review 1: 217-233; see also Weisburst, Emily K. (2019) “Patrolling Public Schools: The impact of funding for school police on student discipline and long-term education outcomes.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.22116).

[12] Kupchik, Aaron (2010) Homeroom Security: School discipline in an age of fear. New York, NY: NYU Press.

[13] E.g., Skiba, Russell J., Choong-Geun Chung, Megan Trachok, Timberly L. Baker, Adam Sheya and Robin L. Hughes (2014) “Parsing Disciplinary Disproportionality: Contributioons of infraction, student, and school characteristics to out-of-school suspension and expulsion.” American Educational Research Journal 51: 640-670.

[14] Weisburst (2019)

[15] Kupchik, Aaron (2016) The Real School Safety Problem: The long-term consequences of harsh school punishment. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

[16] Cook, Philip J., Denise C. Gottfredson, and Chongmin Na (2010) “School Crime Control and Prevention.” Crime
and Justice 39: 313-440

[17] Kupchik (2010)

[18] https://www.aclu.org/other/criminalizing-classroom-over-policing-new-york-city-schools

[19] https://nasro.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/NASRO-To-Protect-and-Educate-nosecurity.pdf

[20] Grisso, Thomas, Lawrence Steinberg, Jennifer Woolard, Elizabeth CAuffman, Elizabeth Scott, Sandra Graham Fran Lexcen, N. Dicon Repucci, and Robert Schwarts (2003) “Juveniles’ Competence to Stand Trial: A comparison of adolescents’ and adults’ capacities as trial defendants.” Law & Human Behavior 27: 333-363.

 

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