School Resource Officers Lack Training, Effectiveness Questioned: Study

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Dr. Weeks Elementary School. Photo by Casey Quinlan

While the federal government has spent close to $1 billion to deploy police in our nation’s public schools, it remains “unclear how effective” the School Resource Officers (SROs) are in preventing the school tragedies that have rocked the nation for 20 years–tragedies that are used as a justification for their deployment, according to a new study from the nonprofit group Strategies for Youth (SFY).

These SROs, many of them armed, can be found in an estimated 71 percent of all public high schools in the country, as well as in middle and elementary schools, found the study, titled “Two Billion Dollars Later: States Begin to Regulate School Resource Officers in the Nation’s Schools, a Survey of State Laws.”

Evidence of their ability to prevent school shootings is lacking, “but studies do now provide compelling evidence that [the SROs] presence increases the odds that students will be arrested for minor offenses and that children of color and those with disabilities will be treated most harshly,” said the study.

Over half of all states do not mandate any specific training or oversight for SROs, which the study called “troubling.”

“Our survey shows the most comprehensive set of training requirements are found in Nebraska and Virginia,” it concluded.

SFY praised Virginia, which  appears to mandate all of the training requirements that SFY recommends as essential, including adolescent
development, recognizing and addressing signs of mental distress and trauma, de-escalation, special education law, implicit bias, restorative justice, bullying, and partnering with community organizations to identify additional services for students and families.”

The study lamented that only eight states require SROs to be trained in de-escalation. And only four states and the District of Columbia require SROs to be trained in mediation and/or restorative justice practices.

To put the training in context, however, instruction in police cadet academies on how to effectively interact with young people typically hovers at around four to six hours, the study said.

“Since the Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas school shootings in 2018, states have allocated an additional $965 million to increase the presence of law enforcement in their schools,” the study said. “This brings the total investment since 1999 made by state and federal governments in School Resource Officers to close to $2 billion.”

The study authors write, “Given this massive investment in public funds, how much oversight is being provided by the federal government and states? As it turns out, very little by the federal government.”

The part that these officers play in how students are treated in various ways is also studied.

A 2015 empirical analysis found that a police officer’s regular presence at a school “increases the odds that school officials will refer students to law enforcement for committing lower-level offenses.” According to this
report: “The consequences of involving students in the criminal justice system are severe, especially for students of color, and may negatively affect the trajectory of students’ lives.”

Another study included in the SFY research examined data on over 2.5 million students in Texas, finding that federal grants for police in schools increased middle school exclusionary discipline rates by 6 percent, with Black and Latinx students experiencing the largest increases in discipline.

Disturbingly, research “found that three-year federal grants for school police correlate with a 2.5 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and a 4 percent decrease in college enrollment rates.”

While some states are more aware of the need for training, the study authors said, “There is still much to be concerned about. Advocates in every state must continue to be vigilant in their efforts to ensure that SROs are not pushing children unnecessarily into the juvenile justice system, criminalizing normative adolescent activities, or unnecessarily using force against children who pose no danger to themselves or others.”

SFY actively engages law enforcement, youth, and youth-serving community-based organizations in an interdisciplinary approach to addressing several problems: the proliferation of contentious encounters
between law enforcement and youth, unnecessary arrests of youth for minor offenses, and disproportionate contact with youth of color.

The report was prepared by Lisa H. Thurau and Lany W. Or. The final version of the study was edited by Johanna Wald. Research for this study was conducted by Rebecca Gorman and Ehran Hodes.

The full study can be found here.

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