National conversations about police brutality have spurred school districts nationwide to reconsider their relationships with local law enforcement agencies. In the 2017–2018 school year, 45 percent of all public schools reported having one or more full- or part-time school resource officers (SROs) present at school at least once a week. However, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement officers, the Minneapolis school board voted unanimously to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, which had provided the district with SROs. Soon after, other districts—including Oakland Unified School District, Denver Public Schools, Charlottesville City Schools, Milwaukee Public Schools, and San Francisco Unified School District—enacted similar measures to remove police officers from schools.
As these and similar actions gain momentum, it is critical that districts and school boards listen to their communities’ needs and concerns and actively engage community members in decision making. Five findings from research can inform conversations between school districts and their communities about the utility of SROs, given racial disparities in school policing and the availability of alternative strategies for improving school safety.
Black students comprise 15 percent of the nationwide K–12 student population, but represent 31 percent of all referrals to law enforcement and 36 percent of all school-based arrests. By contrast, White students comprise 49 percent of America’s student population but only 37 and 33 percent of referrals to law enforcement and school-based arrests, respectively. Police officers and security personnel are disproportionately placed in majority Black schools versus schools that are majority White. Among homogenously Black middle and high schools in 2016, where more than 75 percent of enrolled students were Black, 54 percent had one or more school-based law enforcement or security officers on campus. In homogenously White schools, just 33 percent had such personnel in place.
In recent years, many states have enacted policies to increase the presence of law enforcement on school campuses. However, research is mixed on whether increased policing actually makes schools safer. Studies examining whether SROs reduce the number of reported serious violent crimes (e.g., rape, sexual battery, armed robbery, and assaults with a weapon) at school have presented mixed results. Further, SROs have little effect on less severe behaviors, including fights between students and physical assaults that do not involve weapons. Research also shows that student arrests increase when SROs are present, which often disproportionately harms Black students. To combat these negative consequences, many states have enacted policies to increase training for school-based law enforcement officers—especially implicit bias training. However, most officer training programs have not been rigorously evaluated and some research shows that increased training is not associated with reductions in reported disciplinary infractions.
SROs are typically sworn members of local police departments stationed on school campuses, while security guards are unsworn and are often hired to secure school building access. Twenty-two percent of schools report having at least one security guard present at least once a week, with 16.3 percent having a full-time guard on staff. However, some research shows that the number of security guards on school grounds increases reports of serious violence across all grade levels, regardless of school racial composition. Studies examining the presence of security guards are mixed, but research has shown that their presence can increase student fear. Terminating contracts with local police departments and removing SROs from school campuses does not necessarily eliminate the presence of armed or unarmed private security guards.
Research shows that students do not necessarily feel safer when schools are turned into high-security environments or when SROs are present. By contrast, research on violence prevention within schools shows that investments in student skill-building and early childhood development, increased access to school- and community-based mental health supports, and stronger community and family engagement can lead to reduced violence in school and the surrounding community. These practices emphasize building connections within a school; students who feel this connection to school are less likely to bring weapons onto school grounds.
In 2018, 26 states spent over $960 million bolstering SRO presence and school security updates. It is especially important for school districts to consider the implications of these costs as school budgets are cut in the wake of COVID-19 and as many students return to schools with few to no available mental health staff or nurses. In 2018, 60 percent of schools did not offer any mental health services and 18 percent did not have any paid school nurses on campus. In 2016, 21 percent of schools with a student body majority of Black students had more security staff on campus than mental health staff, including counselors, psychologists, and social workers. This figure was just 2.5 percent for majority White schools and 7.9 percent for all other non-homogenous secondary schools. One full-time SRO can cost a school district an estimated $75,000 to $97,000, annually. The average cost to employ one school psychologist is less than $80,000 per year and $69,500 per year for one school nurse. Research shows that placing a school nurse within every school would likely yield strong returns on investment for students and communities.
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