Testimony: Strategies on Managing School Security Contract Under the District’s Public Policy Change

Publication Date:

October 21, 2020



Testimony of Victor St. John, Research Scientist

October 21, 2020

DC Council Roundtable on School Security

Good morning, Councilmembers.

My name is Victor St. John and I’m a research scientist for Child Trends, a national research institute devoted to improving the lives of children, youth, and their families through rigorous research, unbiased analyses, and clear communications to improve public policy and child-serving institutions. I am delighted to share with you today Child Trends’ perspective on the District of Columbia Council’s decision to shift management of the school security contract from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to the District of Columbia Public Schools. This is a step in the right direction but there is much more to consider.

The shift in the management of this security contract is as much a result of a divide that exists between law enforcement and communities of color as it is a call for education administrators in DC to reimagine and redefine safety within school settings. Given this context, my remarks will address three points:

  • What research tells us about the influence of school security personnel on school environments
  • What insights we might glean from research on SROs to understand the challenges D.C. Public Schools will face overseeing the new private security contract
  • Specific strategies on minimizing the risks and increasing the benefits that come with the use of private security

School Violence and Policing

Let me begin by stating that we cannot police or surveil our way toward safe schools. The data support this statement. The 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and similarly painful occurrences since, have led to an expansion in school security measures, such as increased budgets for security cameras, metal detectors, and school resource officers (or SROs).[1] The expectation was that such measures would significantly improve school safety.[2]

But even when school safety is narrowly defined—as the prevention of, absence of, or the ability to respond to immediate violence—the use of SROs has mixed support in research. Results are mixed as to whether SROs are associated with a reduction in the number of serious violent crimes reported at schools (e.g., rape, sexual battery, armed robbery, and assaults with a weapon).[3] This is inclusive of studies showing that the number of SROs in a school are associated with a significant decline in reported serious violent crime and other studies that find no such association. One study went beyond exploring increases or decreases in reporting to evaluate SRO responsiveness by examining police calls related to active shootings from April 1999 to March 2018; it found that, of 197 incidents based in primary and secondary schools, the SROs on duty stopped the shooting in only one incident.[4]

I want to remind Councilmembers that school violence, overall, has been on the decline for decades. However, I’ll also warn that we cannot attribute these improvements to the increased presence of security personnel, or security personnel with firearms, in our schools. From 1999 to 2018, nonfatal victimization decreased by 56 percent. However, this decline was well underway before the Columbine mass shooting. From 1992 to 1999, nonfatal victimization decreased by 13 percent.[5] Included in my testimony are graphs with more detailed information on this trend (please see Figure 1). Historical data on fatal shootings also show a downward trend before and after 1999.[6]

More recent data make this point even clearer. The percentage of schools with security personnel within schools increased from 2015 to 2018 (57% to 61%)—along with the proportion of schools with sworn law enforcement officers carrying firearms (43% to 47%)—school violence barely fluctuated.[7] These data do not corroborate the narrative that increased security resources (including personnel) caused reductions in school violence in U.S. public schools.

When the concept of safety is expanded to include the mental, educational, social, or physical health of students, it becomes clear that school security personnel may create more harm for students than good. We can’t simply look at whether violence is prevalent; we must also examine additional outcomes, such as legal ramifications, trauma, youth feelings of safety in school, and youth engagement in school.

The rates of student arrests increase when schools rely on security personnel, particularly for minor incidences. Although, schools with an SRO present decreased the arrest rate for weapons charges and assaults in one study, the arrest rates for disorderly conduct increased.[8] An increase in student arrest rates, especially when they persist over time and do not correspond with improved safety, are not worth the cost. Youth arrested while in the 9th and 10th grades are six to eight times more likely to drop out of high school[9]; and generally, youth arrested at earlier ages are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. We are aware that age at first arrest remains one of the strongest predictors or risk factors of long-term and serious criminal activity, especially when youth are arrested before age 15.[10]

The harmful outcomes to which students are exposed do not stop there. Law enforcement intervention can be traumatic for youth and lead to various adaptations in their behavior. One study found that school arrests and suspensions led to subsequent antisocial behavior among youth within a one-year period.[11] This becomes problematic for youth because many schools are ill-equipped to provide mental health support. Research shows that more than 50 percent of youth receiving mental health services receive this support from their schools, but that less than half of schools provide such services.[12]

Under this expanded definition of safety, research also finds evidence of differential outcomes for students of color when compared to their white peers. First, security may look different in predominantly racial and ethnic minority schools than in predominantly white schools. One study using a nationally representative sample of U.S. schools found that non-white and/or poorer students were exposed to more surveillance, such as the use of drug-sniffing police dogs and metal detectors.[13] Research also suggests that Black youth, in general, are arrested at higher rates than their white counterparts for minor misbehaviors in school.[14]

Given that experiences of arrest and surveillance by security personnel is racialized,[15] racial trauma is another potential harm to youth.[16] For example, there are racial differences in how students perceive security mechanisms. A study utilizing the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that schools with more visible security measures in place (e.g., metal detectors) were associated with lower levels of students feeling safe. As a whole, students who are Black, American Indian, Asian, and of other races reported feeling significantly less safe in school than their white peer groups.[17] Furthermore, an imbalance in security presence and mental health personnel is well-documented along racial lines. Predominantly Black middle schools and high schools have more school-based security (i.e., sworn law enforcement officers or security guards) and fewer mental health staff when compared to predominantly white middle schools and high schools.[18] From 2015 to 2018, school security staff (i.e., security guards, security personnel, school resource officers, and sworn law enforcement officers who are not SROs) were predominantly placed in schools with higher proportions of racial and ethnic minority students enrolled, and schools located in cities and towns.[19]

I ask that this Council remember: this inequity in school policing and surveillance takes place alongside daily inequities in school discipline administered by educators and school administrators. Black students and students with disabilities are at great risk for out-of-school suspensions when compared to their white counterparts.[20] According to a recent Child Trends report, during school year 2015 through 2016, 12% of DC’s schools used out-of-school suspension (OSS) at higher rates for Black students compared to their white peers, 7% of DC’s schools used OSS at higher rates for Hispanic students compared to white students, and 43% of DC’s schools utilized out-of-school suspension at higher rates for students with disabilities compared to non-disabled students.[21]

School Security Personnel and Their Approach to School Safety