The debate over police in schools is a divided one, but on one point, most people agree: school resource officers should not be involved in the routine discipline of students. When they are, research has shown, students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be affected by overly harsh penalties
However, they disagree on whether police should be in schools in the first place, according to the Center for Policing Equity, which released data-based recommendations last month.
“School-based police are not an effective tool to make students safe in schools, particularly Black and brown students,” said Scarlet Neath, policy director for CPE, an advocacy and research organization focused on redesigning public safety for minority communities.
“The evidence we combed through was very clear on the subjects of the harms that come from stationing police in schools.”
But the National Association of School Resource Officers says ending school policing entirely is a radical and unnecessary approach, and while there are districts that have put law enforcement in schools and have not done a very good job of it, properly trained SROs are an essential component of school safety.
For more than a decade, the pendulum has been swinging between schools adding more on-campus officers in the aftermath of high-profile acts of school violence and schools re-evaluating law enforcement on campus because of data that show the disproportionate negative impacts on students of color and those with disabilities. It can be a difficult issue for school leaders who often feel community pressure and pressure from teachers and staff members who are worried about safety.
Still, advocacy groups like CPE and organizations that support police in schools such as NASRO agree that administrators—not SROs—are responsible for handling student discipline issues. School police should only be involved if there is a threat of a student having committed a felony. That responsibility should lie with school administrators, both organizations said.
“Just the idea of a law enforcement officer or even an SRO, being involved in that decision … that’s pretty radical,” said Mo Canady, the executive director of NASRO. “That really is what educators, and in particular administrators, are supposed to be trained to deal with.”
How the presence of SROs impacts students of color
School resource officers are law enforcement officers assigned specifically to schools. A vast majority of them are armed, and they often undergo some training on issues that impact schools, such as adolescent behavior, cyberbullying, and implicit bias, according to Canady. Training requirements for SROs vary from state to state.
About 51 percent of public schools have a school resource officer on campus, according to a 2022 study by the U.S. Department of Education. The presence of school resource officers—and how they impact the well-being of students of color—has been debated for more than a decade, with mixed research about the benefits of having law enforcement stationed at schools.
Some studies have shown that SROs decrease the incidence of serious violence at school, such as physical assaults. But they also increase the use of out-of-school suspensions, transfers, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement agencies, the same studies found.
“While some studies showed that SROs had an impact on reduced crime, you have to keep in mind that sometimes things are characterized as crimes that would otherwise not be if it weren’t for the presence of police,” Neath from CPE said.
“The same behavior can be perceived as a disciplinary infraction or as a crime depending on who you know, observing and characterizing.”
This impacts Black students and disabled students disproportionately, the CPE report said. Police officers arrest Black students 2.8 times as often as white students, and disabled students 3.3 times as often as students without disabilities, according to the report. More than 80 percent of students who have been assaulted by school police between 2011 and 2021 were Black, according to a report from the Advancement Project, which analyzed a decade of data on police assaults at school.
About 1 in 6 sworn SROs are Black, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
SROs should be trained in implicit bias, which means recognizing the snap judgments people can make based on race or gender, Canady said. NASRO has provided this training for about eight years, and based on anecdotal evidence it has made a difference in how students perceive SROs, he said. NASRO does not do data collection, Canady said.
Canady said SROs should make sure to connect with minority students, “so that they (understand) what our role is and what it’s not.”
“And that we are there to be an advocate for them and protect them,” he added.
Districts cut ties with SROs over the law few years, but some are reinstating them
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, several districts began severing ties with school resource officers.
From May 2020 through June 2022, at least 50 districts serving over 1.7 million students ended their school policing programs or cut their SRO budgets, according to data compiled by Education Week. However, as of last year, eight of those districts that had removed police from schools reversed course and added them back.
Other districts, such as Minneapolis, replaced school resource officers with different types of security personnel, according to EdWeek data.
But in light of increased violence in schools, including in the number of school shootings over the past couple of years, some districts have reinstated SROs. The most recent example is Denver Public Schools, whose board voted to reinstate SROs in 13 schools following two school shootings in February and March.
Instead, Neath said districts should turn to approaches such as adding mental health supports for students, and implementing restorative justice practices, which are a set of strategies educators can use to help students resolve conflicts with the guidance of trained staff in small groups, before resorting to suspension or expulsion to address behavior incidents.
When should schools involve the police?
School district policies should explicitly state that administrators or teachers should not ask for police involvement unless a student causes or threatens serious physical harm to other students or staff, or possesses a firearm or explosive, according to the CPE recommendations.
These are some factors districts should consider when deciding if law enforcement needs to be involved, according to CPE:
- The student’s age, developmental needs, or known trauma history;
- Whether the behavior is related to a student’s disability;
- The severity of the alleged behavior and the degree of harm to people in the school, including students and staff members;
- The perspective of any harmed students
Examples of conduct issues that should never warrant police involvement according to CPE include:
- Any physical violence and fighting, such as pushing, hitting, or shoving, which does not result in injury requiring medical attention;
- Any name-calling, slurs, bullying, and other verbal harassment that do not present any risk of serious physical harm;
- Disturbances or disruptive behavior such as running, shouting, noise, and profanity;
- Dress-code violations, cell phone use violations (including posting a video of a fight), and any other school disciplinary violations that are not criminal offenses;
- Loitering or trespassing;
- Losing or damaging school property;
- Mutually voluntary sexual behavior among peers of the same age;
- Taking or attempting to take another student or school staff’s property without their permission;
- Threats of harm which, in context, are clearly metaphorical (such as “I’m going to beat you up”);
- Truancy or tardiness;
- Use or possession of controlled substances such as marijuana, cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, and nicotine products;
- Vandalism and graffiti
Within that list, there are some things that would fall within the criminal code, such as possession of marijuana, or vandalism, and some that would not, like cell phone use and dress code violations, non-serious fights, or name-calling. Canady said. For things that don’t fall into the criminal code, SROs should not be involved, he said.
“The bottom line is, we train officers not to become involved in formal disciplinary matters in a school environment unless it becomes a criminal matter,” he said.