As communities across the nation evaluate their policing institutions amidst the “defund the police” movement, many school districts are examining their use of “school resource officers” (SROs), i.e., the use of sworn police officers in schools. Police presence in schools was once viewed as a critical resource in reducing violence in public schools, but recently the conversation has shifted as some call for complete elimination of SRO programs. Critics of SRO programs believe they do more harm than good, citing racial and ethnic disproportionality in school arrests and criminalization of adolescent behavior. At present, jurisdictions from all regions of the country have opted to eliminate their SRO programs, such as Oakland, Portland, Minneapolis, Rochester (NY), Seattle, and Denver. Others, such as Los Angeles, have voted to reduce budget allotments to school police departments.
Proponents of eliminating SRO programs believe in replacing school police with counselors, social workers, and other community-based providers to de-escalate and reduce disturbances while relying on police to respond during emergencies. This decision has sparked controversy though, and a number of jurisdictions remain divided on the issue (e.g., Memphis, the District of Columbia, and San Francisco, to name a few). Regarding California in particular, students have had a state constitutional right to safe schools since 1982, a right widely ignored and rarely even mentioned in conversations regarding the elimination of SRO programs. Students’ rights to safety in schools are even more relevant currently in light of increases in unexpected mass shooting incidents occurring at schools, and many believe that elimination of SRO programs could decrease school safety.
Part of the contention regarding SRO programs comes from the fact that law enforcement and school personnel come from completely different perspectives with different missions. This can lead to different expectations regarding appropriate disciplinary actions in schools (e.g., school personnel can only discipline a student’s behavior while an officer can charge a student with disorderly conduct) and differing prior experiences regarding how to respond to people in crisis.
The government loosely defines an SRO as “a career law enforcement officer, with sworn authority, deployed in community-oriented policing, and assigned by the employing police department or agency to work in collaboration with school and community-based organizations.” This is a broad definition though, and the reality is that SROs’ roles are far from standardized. Some SRO roles are more problem-oriented, where officers perform law enforcement-specific tasks such as threat assessment, assistance with disciplinary incidents, and patrol of school areas. Other SROs follow a community policing framework where they act more as community liaisons and mentors with students and school personnel.
An SRO’s role is negotiated informally between a local police department and a school district, with regulations loosely outlined in some type of written agreement (e.g., a memorandum of understanding [MOU]). An example of something that might be included in a written agreement is a requirement or recommendation that SROs attend NASRO training, which is a widely-recognized national-level training specific to policing in schools. Additionally, written policies may or may not be guided by the various collations of “best practices” touted by foundations and government agencies such as the Police Foundation, International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Many of the techniques emphasized by experts are things like communication and mediation skills, operational de-escalation and threat assessment tactics, and crisis intervention skills.
Given the mix of roles and responsibilities that SROs take on from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, it is not surprising that the research on their effectiveness is also mixed. Simply put, some studies show a reduction in crime while others show no change. However, the context of findings is much more complicated, with many studies finding conflicting results based on the SRO’s particular role as well as the outcome measures and methodology used. Nonetheless, proponents of SRO programs claim that they do have a positive impact in schools, even though it varies and may only be effective in certain contexts.
Findings from a study published in 2021 indicate that SROs could decrease the incidence of serious violence, and others document faster response times to calls for service because officers are already at the site of the incident. Regarding perceptions of the police, a 2019 study suggested that SROs following a community policing model improved relationships with the community via their interactions with students and school administrators. Additionally, other research shows that SRO programs can improve youths’ perception of the police and that teachers may feel safer with SROs in schools.
The efficacy of SRO programs likely varies based on an officer’s perceived role, assigned duties, and training received. For example, a study published in 2020 found that SROs engaged in law enforcement duties saw increases in violent arrests while those engaged in roles other than law enforcement (e.g., mentorship) saw a reduction in violent arrests. Similarly, a 2021 study found that police presence on its own did not reduce violent behavior and disorder, but when an officer embodied a specific role of a ‘prevention SRO,’ there were decreases in violent crime. Other evidence suggests that specialized training for SROs can enhance their effectiveness, such as a study published in 2018 that found that officers engaging in threat assessment skills specific to schools were more effective at predicting and preventing violent behavior, which reduced school shootings and violence in schools.
Regardless, many people criticize SRO programs based on research showing null effects on school safety, while others believe that SRO programs actually have adverse consequences such as traumatizing and injuring students as well as disproportionately affecting people of color in terms of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Other people are on the fence regarding the issue in that they agree that cops do make schools safer, but they are not worth the unintended consequences. However, because the role of the SRO can vary so much, it is hard to know which SRO roles may be effective.
This lack of consensus illustrates how little we know regarding the potential impact of removing police from schools and replacing them with community-based providers. Perhaps rather than eliminating SROs completely, it might be helpful to first consider emerging models for SRO programs. For one, local school districts and law enforcement agencies should ensure that SROs’ roles are clearly outlined and ensure standardized guidelines for SRO involvement as well as requirements for specialized training (e.g., NASRO) specific to the roles SROs take on in school environments.