Police officers stationed on school campuses across the U.S. are reducing the number of fistfights and other aggressive behavior during the school day – but their presence also leads to more reports of gun possession and armed robbery on campus, according to a study released this month by the University of Albany.
The research compared elementary, middle, and high schools that use School Resource Officers (SROs) with those that did not. An SRO is a sworn officer employed by a law enforcement agency that’s assigned to police one or more schools. They are typically armed, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Resource Officers.
The School District of Philadelphia has never had SROs according to district representatives. Instead, they employ unarmed school safety officers who work in and around schools and receive backup from Philadelphia Police Department officers.
These school safety officers used to be called “school police,” but the district changed the name and the duties of these employees in 2020 after the Philadelphia Student Union circulated a petition calling for police-free schools.
The students said they felt terrorized by the officers, and asked the district to “replace school police with community members trained in de-escalation, restorative justice, and other skills” according to the petition. District leadership vowed to make sure student interactions with school safety officers would be positive and helpful experiences.
School districts nationwide have been cutting back on their SRO programs over concerns about the disproportionate discipline of Black students, according to authors of the new University of Albany report.
In Philadelphia, there have been demands for more security on school campuses, especially following the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Nicolas Elizalde at Roxborough High in January. In April the School District of Philadelphia released data showing 100 students had been shot that school year, 20 of them fatally, according to CBS News Philadelphia.
In December, the district announced a gun violence prevention plan that includes hiring additional Philadelphia Police Department officers to “address safety issues outside of the school building that warrant an increased police presence,” using a $600,000 grant.
The study, which analyzed surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education Ofﬁce for Civil Rights between 2014 and 2018, found that the presence of SROs “leads to undeniably harsher disciplinary punishments for students, and particularly for Black students, male students, and students with disabilities.”
The presence of SROs was linked to a 35% to 80% increase in out-of-school suspension, according to the authors.
Shawn Bushway, a University of Albany criminal justice professor, and study author, said that while SROs can’t suspend students, their presence does encourage school staff to administer more discipline.
“There was a sizable increase in suspensions, arrests when a school resource officer came to the schools, and those were concentrated among minorities,” Bushway said. “There’s this real tradeoff that has to be considered when bringing in a school resource officer, because there will be more negative outcomes.”