From Student to Criminal: Are School Resource Officers Doing More Harm than Good?

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New research suggests that assigning uniformed officers to provide security inside schools is a ineffective and potentially disruptive tool, especially for young people of color.

So-called School Resource Officers (SROs) are often police officers but few are trained to deal with children and it’s likely they will use excessive force against minors, according to a paper published this month in the Southern University Law Review.

The paper argues that young students of color are disproportionately targeted and punished by SROs, entangling them in the justice system as a result of behavior that is better handled by school officials — not corrections officers.

The author of the paper and research, Elizabeth Nicole Crain, a J.D. Candidate at the Southern University Law Center, analyzed the federal lawsuit of Kenny v. Wilson to illuminate the racial disparity of SROs’ treatment of children in school.

In 2016, according to the paper, 42 percent of all public schools in America had full or part time SROs.  By 2018, that number increased to 61 percent. Despite this, research shows that very few departments invested the time and financial resources into training officers to work with school children.

Instead, it allows them to implement the same training they receive for adults onto children.

Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers stated, as quoted in the paper, “Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t treat schools as a regular beat rotation without considering whether officers have the desire and knowledge to work in such a distinct setting.”

“I don’t care where the officer is coming from; they shouldn’t be placed in there just for the sake of having someone there,” Canady concluded. “That’s a mistake.”

More studies have shown that the majority of public-school children attend school with an armed and commissioned officer present, but lack access to a school counselor or psychologist.

“Included in these numbers are the 1.6 million students in the U.S. which attend a school that has no school counselor but has at least one SRO,” Crain writes.

School systems with these types of “stripped-down services” where SROs are present but mental health and school counselors are not, Crain found that most are frequently communities with higher numbers of Black youth.

Because of this, Black youth are nearly four  times as likely to be targeted for harsher punishments and “policing abuses in schools” and suspended from school, and three times as likely to be expelled compared to their white classmates.

Previous research on SROs indicated they saw the increase of arrest rates in their schools as a “positive result” of their presence.

“This suggests a failure to understand the mental health, counseling, and development of adolescents with a disregard for the mental well-being and negative consequences that may arise due to such interactions with law enforcement,” Crain writes.

Moreover, Crain notes that there are already federal legislations put in place that attempt to combat these issues that have arisen through the hiring of SROs, but she writes that compliance with the law is “inconsistent at best.”

Kenny v. Wilson 

In the landmark 2020 case, plaintiff Niya Kenny, 19, was a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. As a student in October of 2015, she witnessed a violent incident that began with another female student, 16, sitting at her desk refusing to be escorted out of the room by an SRO after getting in trouble for using her cell phone.

Instead of reasoning with the student, the SRO proceeded to forcefully pull the student from her seat, flip her desk over, and drag the student across the room before putting her in handcuffs.

Kenny, who was also in the room, pulled out her cell phone to record, and yelled at the officer to stop his actions — leading her to be arrested and “hauled off” to an adult detention center for booking, Crain explains.

The video garnered national attention, sparking social media dialogue with the hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh to trend.

Crain writes that the statute that allowed the SRO to use bodily force against the 16 year-old stems from the fact that many states have “disorderly conduct” laws, which prohibits students from conducting themselves in a “disorderly or boisterous manner” while in class.

Unfortunately, this is often used as the reason why a student is involved with an SRO, and subsequently with the legal system.

Between 2010 and 2016, over 9,500 young people throughout the state of South Carolina were referred to the Juvenile Justice System under the Disturbing Schools Law, Crain details.

The latest update on the case was that most recently, it was before the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina for the second time. The defendant’s motion to dismiss was denied.

Because of this case, and countless others like it, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently announced they are challenging similar laws which allow schools to criminally charge normal adolescent behaviors like loitering, cursing, or undefined “obnoxious” actions on school grounds.

Policy Recommendations

First and foremost, Crain notes in her paper, schools should prioritize addressing racial discrimination as the trauma against Black Americans on the streets of our cites is “exactly what is happening to Black youth in school hallways.”

Because of this, institutions must eradicate institutional racism.

Moreover, Crain suggests that state authorities must outline criteria that limits when a school resource officer interjects and refers incidents to law enforcement. This would create a clear separation of when a school needs to handle a situation, and when authorities should — based on “immediate safety risk.”

In 2015, researchers found that only 12 states require specialized training to be an SRO. Because of this, Crain also suggests that the Department of Education, in collaboration with NASRO should outline specific training requirements with how to interact with disabled or poverty-stricken youth.

Other recommendations that Crain outlines include:

      • Sanction non-compliant schools by introducing probationary periods and sanctions with The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reporting;
      • Outlining guidelines for Memorandums of Understanding that reflect that SROs should react as an officer, not a school disciplinarian; and,
      • Distinguish school discipline issues from law enforcement issues.

“The age old saying ‘boys will be boys’ is used to cast aside the sometimes aggressive and boisterous personalities of male youth,” Crain concludes.

“However, Black boys are stripped of their youth by the perceptions of others,” so “we must build our youth up and give them the tools they need to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

Elizabeth Nichole Crain is a 2022 J.D. Candidate, as well as a Junior Associate Editor at the Southern University Law Center.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer with The Crime Report

One thought on “From Student to Criminal: Are School Resource Officers Doing More Harm than Good?

  1. Our 12 year old son ended up being charged with two felonies and 3 misdemeanors after the SRO office at his school in South Dakota filed charges against him for allegedly spraying another child with a disinfectant bottle that was not labeled and contained a clear liquid (it was from 7-10 feet away from behind). Luckily we had a friend that is an attorney and told us he wanted to take the case. Myself, my husband and our attorney friend started doing research and even though our attorney had requested the diluted version of the SDS of the chemical that was supposed to be in the bottle from the prosecutor, he never did receive it. We found the SDS and also contacted the manufacturer and were able to determine this would not have caused any serious eye injury which the alleged victim might have receive…. the case was finally dismissed late July (we first found out about the charges when we received the summons back in October 2020). Needless to say it has been a VERY stressful time for our entire family. I just want others to know what happened to us and that parents need to be advocates for their children and DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!

    Parents read through your school’s handbook to know how long you have to submit a complaint as SD is 180 days and after that nothing can be done, so make sure you DOCUMENT ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, NO MATTER HOW MINOR! I personally love to use emails as they are time and date stamped. We as parents feel that having the SRO office in a school of approximately 250 children from Pre-K to 12th grade doesn’t seem needed and certainly didn’t help our son any in this instance, we felt it created more issues and are doing what we can as parents by getting our son counseling for all he’s been through. [This comment has been condensed for space]

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