On Monday, March 27, 2023, I woke up, drove my children to school, insisted that they hug me before exiting the car, and headed east to my favorite coffee shop to work. Just a little while later, around 10:40 a.m. CT, I began receiving news alerts and text messages from friends about the massacre at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tenn. Six people were killed, including a custodian, the head of school, a substitute teacher, and three 9-year-old children.
When my wife called me, I could sense the worry and stress in her voice. I stood up and began pacing the floor of the coffee shop, wondering if the attack might be part of a coordinated effort to shoot students and educators in schools across Nashville—including my children’s school. I was stunned. I was angry. I was afraid. When my 13-year-old twin daughters arrived home from school, they, too, appeared stunned. But unlike the anger I felt, they expressed their sadness and confusion: How could this brutal massacre happen at a school approximately seven miles from theirs?
School shootings have occurred and intensified throughout the United States over the years. According to Education Week’s 2023 School Shooting Tracker, there have been 174 shootings since 2018 in the country as of Sept. 13, 2023. Polarized arguments inundate media outlets about school shootings, with positions varying from the need for tougher gun-control policies and laws to calls for increased mental health supports. My view is that both arguments have significant merit.
But coupled with these broader-level discourses about ways to address school shootings are the presence, role, need, and/or necessity of school resource officers, or SROs, the law-enforcement officers who work in a school setting whose training requirements vary by state. In short, a central question is this: What role might SROs play in creating, cultivating, and maintaining safe and effective schools while avoiding prisonlike contexts where students feel surveilled and controlled?
In this moment of intensified focus on increasing SROs in schools, it’s essential to understand what the research tells us about their impact. That is, what benefits do they bring to school communities and what cautionary measures must be in place to ensure the safety, humanity, and developmental understanding of students. We’ve seen what happens when their presence goes wrong, such as what happened in South Carolina where an SRO slammed a Black student to the floor.
Research is clear that SROs can be essential to school security and a sense of safety for those in schools. However, research also shows that for certain populations (e.g., students of color and students with disabilities), SROs can contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline. For instance, SROs can advance disproportionate and “unnecessary” arrests of particular students rather than utilizing restorative practices and providing deeper levels of empathy for students, families, and communities.
I have been conducting research in schools across the United States since 1998. I was also a high school English teacher and a community college instructor. I have taught in universities across the nation and at one in Canada. I have observed that in high-poverty, low-resourced schools with large numbers of students of color, SROs send the message that their work is to protect students from each other and to protect teachers and other adults in the school from students. Noticeably, in better-resourced schools with larger numbers of white students, SROs are viewed as those who protect those in the school from outsiders.
This cognitive shift in the role of SROs is significant.
As districts across the country work to increase the presence of SROs, it is important to remember that simply having an additional body in a school is not sufficient. Students and adults alike are less anxious when they feel safe and are not under constant surveillance within their own community. As the numbers of SROs increase, their training must incorporate the capability to understand:
- Schools as places of human improvement. Young people deserve multiple opportunities to “get it right.” So SROs must see their work as part of helping students grow.
- Child development. Students are not adults in younger bodies. They require SROs with patience, empathy, and knowledge about how children’s brains work.
- Diversity. Student needs vary based on their realities outside and inside of school.
- Restorative over punishment practices. Young people should understand how their harm and the harm of others can be addressed through discourse, relationship building, and authentic apology to improve their own and a collective school environment. To do this, SROs must understand fundamental differences between punishment and disciplinary practices.
- Mental and psychological health. Student behavior is greatly influenced by their mindset, support, and the tools provided to them to help them recognize their mental state and enable them to respond appropriately to challenges. SROs must maintain their own mental and psychological health as they help recognize and cultivate health among others in school.
- How to build and sustain relationships. Students should see SROs as part of a community effort to protect, serve, and improve their learning opportunities and experiences. To do this, schools and SROs must create and participate in opportunities to learn about and build relationships with students, such as having informal conversations with them and attending school functions where young people are showcased (e.g., sporting events and theater).
As we move into this new academic year, I strongly encourage a press for SROs to be one of support and safety within the community where students are not treated as prisoners who must be kept in line. The SRO should be integrated into the school community to recognize and help support developmental needs and assets of young people as we work collectively to create safe and more humanizing communities.