Stationing police in schools worsens the ‘school to prison pipeline’ by criminalizing student behavior that could otherwise be handled by internal school discipline, according to a study published in Criminology & Public Policy.
Stepping into the long-running debate over whether uniformed police on campus can reinforce safety, the authors of a study of California schools called on educators to limit the use of School Resource Officers (SROs)”only to those schools experiencing extremely high levels of violence.”
“Most schools can reap the benefits that police can offer by having an SRO attached to the school and ready to respond in times of need, but not stationed at the school on a regular basis,” the study said.
School Resource Officers are now ubiquitous across the U.S. The percentage of schools deploying sworn law enforcement officers as guards has skyrocketed from 1 percent in 1976 to 48 percent in 2016.
Much of the increase occurred in the early 2000s as concerns over school shootings multiplied. Between 1999 and 2005, the federal government awarded $753 million to schools around the country to expand the use of SROS , fueled by federal grants under the “COPS in Schools” program, and buttressed later by state funding.
But the outpouring of cash and support has proceeded without clear evidence that it has made schools safer. “Beliefs about the pros and cons of placing SROs in schools are more often fueled by emotions than informed by research,” the study authors wrote.
To probe the SRO impact on school safety, the researchers compared arrest rates and referrals in 33 California middle and high schools where police were regularly deployed with 72 schools that did not have SROs. California was chosen because law enforcement agencies in that state received the largest number of federal grants for school officers and there was sufficient data to analyze the impact.
They found that schools with SROs recorded larger numbers of serious crimes committed by students that merited charges or their expulson.
The results at first glance seemed to support the premise that SROs helped to deter violent student crime by identifying more criminal behavior. But in fact, it revealed that police and educators had sharply divergent ideas of what constituted dangers to school security, and how to handle them.
“[Our] survey and interview data suggest that the increase in school disciplinary offenses due to increased SRO staffing levels observed in our study is probably due at least in part to increased surveillance,” the authors said.
“This interpretation supports the view that SRO presence may contribute to a ‘school-to-prison pipeline; by increasing formal responses to behaviors that otherwise would have been undetected or handled informally.”
The researchers noted that the higher rates of recording offenses could be ascribed to the initial impact of deploying a police officer inside the school. But there was no evidence to support claims that SFROs have a longer-term deterrent effect on school violence, since the high recording rates continued for as many as 20 months after SROs were introduced.
Similarly, there was no evidence to suggest that SROs served as a deterrent to school shooters, the researchers added, noting that major incidents such as the Parkland, FL., school shooting occurred when an SRO was already deployed.
“It is difficult to argue that schools are becoming safer when recorded crimes and exclusionary responses persist for so long after the introduction of SROs,” the authors wrote.
“Research also fails to support the contention that schools become more conducive to learning for the general school population after SROs are introduced.”
The authors said their figures showed that Black and Latinx students in inner-city schools were disproportionately affected by the presence of SROs, with greater likelihood of being arrested and charged.
“While rooting out student behaviors that have the potential to reduce student safety is desirable, unnecessarily harsh responses to behaviors that could be handled informally have the potential to harm students,” the study said.
Pointing out that police and teachers take widely different approaches to discipline, the researchers said even with the best training, SROs are not equipped to assess students who manifest problem behavior.
“Educational decision-makers wishing to enhance school safety would be wise to consider the many alternatives to programs that require regular police presence in schools,” the study said.
The study can be downloaded free of charge here until Sept. 15, after which it is available for purchase only.
This summary was prepared by Stephen Handelman, editor of The Crime Report.