Monthly Archives: December 2021

Police officer at a school, near a school bus

Police in Schools and School Shootings

This is a slightly expanded version of a twitter thread I posted yesterday. Prompted by a tweet from my friend, Jean Josey, I’ve been thinking a lot about the school shootings and the presence of police in schools (e.g., so-called “School Resource Officers). 

As was noted in a number of articles on the Oxford High School Shoot, a sheriff’s deputy regularly stationed at the high school helped apprehend the shooter. Naturally, the response by the Michigan legislature is to propose putting more money towards police in schools

The growth in the use of police in schools occurred during the 1990s, a time of much higher crime rates, the (false) fear of the creation of “super predators,” and high-profile school shootings like Columbine. One driver was federal funding provided by the COPS in Schools program passed after the Columbine shooting. 

As described by the US Department of Justice, while they also may serve as informal counselors, educators, and emergency managers, the SROs “primary responsibility is law enforcement.”  So, it’s no surprise when police are in schools, they arrest students. 

Effect of SROs

What do we know about the effects of SROs on kids in schools? Are there positive effects (e.g., students are safer)? Are there negative effects (e.g., kids more likely to be arrested)? Unfortunately, as Alexis Stern & Anthony Petrosino point out, rigorous academic research on these effects is sparse. 

However, while there isn’t strong evidence demonstrating an increase in feelings of safety or decrease school in school shootings, there are clearly negative effects. A meta-analysis by Benjamin W. Fisher & Emily A. Hennessy found that the presence of SROs is correlated with an increase in exclusionary discipline (i.e., suspensions and expulsions).  

But even if there are some positive outcomes from having police in schools, there may be other ways of achieving these good things while avoiding the negative effects. I’d connect this to the movement to reimagine police, shifting non-policing activities from sworn officers who may be ill-suited for them (and can arrest people) to other kinds of public workers (e.g., counselors, social workers, educators). 

Naturally, I have to cite an ACLU report on the school-to-prison pipeline, which found that there are 1.7 million students in the US who attend schools where there police but no counselors! So, we don’t invest in the kinds of resources that students really need and that provide positive outcomes

Who gets arrested?

We can’t ignore the discriminatory effects of these programs either. Black and brown students are much more likely to be in schools with SROs, and even in those schools, are more likely to be arrested and have other negative consequences (e.g., suspensions and expulsions). 

So, even if police in schools had significant positive effects overall, we would need to serious reconsider them because of their racist effects.  

Change in crime rates

It’s also important to note that tremendous decrease in crime in schools since over the past 30 years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the rate of victimization in schools dropped to one-sixth the level it was in the 1990s.

Chart showing decline in student victimization rates from 1992 to 2019
Chart showing decline in student victimization rates from 1992 to 2019


So, if the School Resource Officers don’t clearly make schools safer, have significant negative effects, and are racist in their effect, it’s clearly to move away from them. 

In their recent report published by the Brookings Institution, A better path forward for criminal justice: Reconsidering police in schools, Ryan King and Marc Schindler suggest short-, medium-, and long-term reforms around police in schools:

  • Short-term: Put the “Resource” in SROs & limit their roles and responsibilities
  • Medium-term: Eliminate funding for police in schools; remove police from schools and invest in supports and services proven to contribute to safety
  • Long-term: Break the School-to-Prison Pipeline

If schools and communities implement these reforms, students will be safer and have more positive outcomes.