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

TestimonyHealthy SchoolsOct 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

Research aside, SROs and other security personnel have become a leading choice for schools looking to ensure a safe environment. Given that MPD no longer manages the security contract for DC schools, one question arises naturally—whether a distinction can be made between security personnel managed by police department or by a local educational agency. Answering this question requires an understanding of what the evidence says about the benefits and costs to school safety and student well-being. The evidence here is limited but the research on the utility of private security versus SROs, may help us to anticipate the challenges that DCPS will face as they take over management of the security contract.

One study[22] examined this topic for a variety of schools. It found that schools that use SROs were associated with lower incidences of violent crime among schools that were ethnically diverse, and associated with higher violent incidences in middle school, high school, combined schools, large, medium, and small schools. Schools with private security had high incidences of violence within middle schools, medium, and large schools. Violent crime in both the school and school neighborhood increased under the use of private security. Taken together, violent incidences in school remain associated with the presence of security personnel, regardless of the use of an SRO or private security.

Findings also showed that gang activity within schools secured by private security was associated with higher incidence of violent crime, whereas gang activity in schools with SROs or schools without any form of security had no association with violent incidences. In other words, the level of violence related to gangs was more prominent in schools with private security personnel in place. In a nationally representative sample of elementary, middle, and high schools, SROs funded via federal “COPS in Schools” grants identified more rule-breaking behavior and arrested more youth for property and violent offenses. Youth under age 15 made up the bulk of these arrests, which were often for violent offenses that could be described as a “scuffle.”[23] (Please recall the aforementioned ramifications of arresting youth, especially youth under age 15.)

Strategies on Managing School Security under the District’s Policy Change

Nonetheless, I understand that the school security contract is shifting from the Metropolitan Police Department to the District of Columbia Public Schools. Here, I offer my recommendations on how to ensure that it’s done well. These recommendations center around the following:

  • A clear definition of what safety will look like across schools in the District of Columbia;
  • Mechanisms of accountability for security personnel;
  • Student and caregiver buy-in; and
  • Maintenance and expansion of preexisting alternatives to security personnel.

To my first point, DC schools should establish a clear definition of safety. This includes ensuring that the scope of work in which security personnel engage is aligned with the overarching definition of safety adopted by the district. Security personnel taking combined roles as law enforcement, pseudo-educator, and/or counselor[27],[28] is ill-advised. Instead, their roles should be clearly outlined, and the associated risks mitigated. For instance, the Triad Model outlines that security personnel who serve in all three capacities increase the number of crimes they report, including incidents that may not normally rise to a level that necessitates reporting a crime or referring it to security personnel. In many ways, the extra level of surveillance in schools is similar to what we notice with net widening and the excessive amount of youth on probation in the U.S.[29] That is, we are promoting contact between low-risk youth—predominately students of color—and the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

Second, there must be accountability for the actions (and inactions) of security personnel and of school administrators who oversee security personnel. Assuming that administrations have a clear understanding of the overall goals, scope of work, approach to work, and potential adverse impacts of security personnel, accountability mechanisms are necessary to facilitate a smooth transition. Although oversight is one of the first items to be cut in budgets, research on law enforcement management shows that oversight is particularly crucial during periods in which practices are being changed or newly implemented.[30],[31] The composition of such an oversight body should include a variety of stakeholders, such as school administrators, teachers, parents, security personnel, and representatives from the student body.

Moving forward, if the scope of work includes some form of informal mentorship, incorporating non-criminal or legal metrics will be necessary to assess the full influence of security staff. This should not be a performative tool that rewards security personnel for reporting more or fewer crimes, but should instead be used to (a) tailor strategies toward meeting the overarching goal of school security in its expanded definition; and (b) address disparities as they arise within or between schools. Without the collection of data or ongoing research related to the implementation of the security contract—particularly for security personnel—there will be continuous debate around the issues that arise today, limiting our progress toward a resolution.[32]

Accountability should also allow for systems that students may use to file complaints. Students should be aware of and have reasonable access to multiple processes for reporting security personnel transgressions. Processes should also be in place for timely reviews of various complaints, maintaining anonymity of the student if requested; for communication with appropriate parties (e.g., a parent) about issues that arise; to present options for reasonable resolutions (e.g., mediation or termination); and to allow appeal processes within the bounds of the school’s legal authority on the matter.

To my third point, buy-in from students and caregivers will be essential. Gaining buy-in—or getting school community members to accept that school security personnel are legitimate sources of authority that have the best interests of students at heart—will be a byproduct of adequately involving students and caregivers in the security-related processes under this contract (e.g., hiring, installation of metal detectors, access to relevant data, goals and approach of security personnel in schools and nearby communities). Buy-in will be most influenced by students’ and caregivers’ direct and indirect interactions with security personnel.

Lastly, successful alternatives to security personnel should be maintained and expanded. Research-based alternatives to policing and security offer guidance and strategies to address safety and student behavior that should be considered in place of, or along with, safety personnel. For example, research on whole-school approaches—specifically the Whole School, Whole Community, and Whole Child (WSCC) framework[33]—lend a hand on the key domains that should be addressed to foster a healthy school environment. This framework includes health education; physical education and physical activity; nutrition environment and services; health services; counseling, psychological, and social services; social and emotional climate; physical environment; employee wellness; family engagement; and community involvement.[34],[35] Interestingly, a review of state statutes and regulations enacted as of September 2017 shows that DC outperforms the national score across these domains, except for employee wellness, community involvement, and health services.[36]

However, DC youth also rank above the national rate for youth with adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs), speaking to the need for services and supports that emphasize prevention and attend to students’ social, behavioral, and emotional well-being.[37] Given the added trauma of violence within school—including the arrests, suspensions, active shooter drills, and variety of responses to school violence—a healthy school environment should sustain the mental health of the student body. At the very least, we can all agree that school should not be an environment in which the mental health of students is compromised. Researchers at Child Trends call for a whole-school approach to mental health in which nonclinical staff also partake in school-based mental health interventions. Systematic reviews of best practices also recommend that schools utilize counseling services, skill development, psychoeducation related to trauma, and parent engagement to support the mental health of students.[38]

Taken together, the use of security personnel within the school setting should not contribute to the trauma or mental unwellness of students, and school administrators and stakeholders should carefully oversee security procedures via the methods outlined earlier (e.g., oversight). Youth exhibiting externalizing behaviors following adversity need support, not further trauma or criminalization.


In closing, security personnel are increasingly used in schools, are increasingly armed, report more crimes, are associated with more student suspensions and arrests, and have broad scopes of work that can include law enforcer, educator, and counselor—with harmful effects. Students have mixed perceptions of feeling safe in school with more security measures present, and students who are Black, American Indian, Asian, or of other races are more likely to feel unsafe than their white peers. Furthermore, all of this holds true despite a national decline in violence and theft in public elementary, middle, and high schools since 1992.

Moreover, racial and ethnic disparities are particularly relevant to today’s discussion, given that the divide between law enforcement and communities of color represents one reason for the shift in the contract from the Metropolitan Police Department to the District of Columbia Public Schools. There is, overall, an absence of trust, safety, and respect between law enforcement and communities, as well as unequal distributive, procedural, and substantive justice. Addressing the whole-school approach is necessary to mitigate these concerns, and to generate specific recommendations on scope of work, accountability, buy-in, and investing in successful security personnel alternatives. Let me close by reiterating that we cannot police or surveil our way toward safe schools and attempts to do so will likely undermine the very goals we seek to achieve.


[1] Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(10), 1426-1446.

[2] Temkin, D., Stuart-Cassel, V., Lao, K., Nuñez, B., Kelley, S., & Kelley, C. The evolution of state school safety laws since the Columbine school shooting. Child Trends.

[3] Fulks, E., Garcia, K., & Harper, K. Research to consider as schools address community demands to renegotiate school-police partnerships. Child Trends

[4] No author. (2018). School Resource Officers: Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.

[5] National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved October 2020 from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_228.20.asp

[6] No author. (2018). School Resource Officers: Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.

[7] National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences. U.S. Department of Education.

[8] Theriot, M. T. (2009). School resource officers and the criminalization of student behavior. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37(3), 280-287.

[9] Hirschfield, P. (2009). Another way out: The impact of juvenile arrests on high school dropout. Sociology of Education, 82(4), 368-393.

[10] Donnellan, M. B., Ge, X., & Wenk, E. (2002). Personality characteristics of juvenile offenders: differences in the CPI by age at first arrest and frequency of offending. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(5), 727-740.

[11] Hemphill, S. A., Toumbourou, J. W., Herrenkohl, T. I., McMorris, B. J., & Catalano, R. F. (2006). The effect of school suspensions and arrests on subsequent adolescent antisocial behavior in Australia and the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(5), 736-744.

[12] Stratford, B. (2020). As schools reopen, addressing COVID-19-related trauma and mental health issues will take more than mental health services. Child Trends.

[13] Kupchik, A., & Ward, G. (2014). Race, poverty, and exclusionary school security: An empirical analysis of US elementary, middle, and high schools. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 12(4), 332-354.

[14] Wolf, K. C. (2013). Booking students: An analysis of school arrests and court outcomes. Nw. JL & Soc. Pol’y, 9, i.

[15] “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.” Fulks, E., Garcia, K., & Harper, K. Research to consider as schools address community demands to renegotiate school-police partnerships. Child Trends.

[16] Parris, D., St. John, V., & Bartlett, D. Resources to Support Children’s Emotional Well-Being Amid Anti-Black Racism, Racial Violence, and Trauma. Child Trends.

[17] Perumean-Chaney, S. E., & Sutton, L. M. (2013). Students and perceived school safety: The impact of school security measures. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(4), 570-588.

[18] Harper, K., & Temkin, D. Compared to majority white schools, majority black schools are more likely to have security staff. Child Trends. Schools were determined to be predominant of a given race if 75% of the student body were from one racial group.

[19] National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences. U.S. Department of Education.

[20] Harper, K., Ryberg, R., & Temkin, D. (2019). Black students and students with disabilities remain more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, despite overall declines. Child Trends.

[21] Harper, K., Ryberg, R., & Temkin, D. (2019). Black students and students with disabilities remain more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, despite overall declines. Child Trends.

[22] Maskaly, J., Donner, C. M., Lanterman, J., & Jennings, W. G. (2011). On the association between SROs, private security guards, use-of-force capabilities, and violent crime in schools. Journal of police crisis negotiations, 11(2), 159-176.

[23] Owens, E. G. (2017). Testing the school‐to‐prison pipeline. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 36(1), 11-37.

[24] Higgins, E. M., Overstreet, S., Coffey, B., & Fisher, B. W. (2020). ‘Bridging the gap’: school resource officers as bridge builders in the community policing era. Journal of Crime and Justice, 43(4), 433-448.

[25] Canady, M., James, B., & Nease, J. (2012). To protect and educate: The school resource officer and the prevention of violence in schools. Hoover, AL: National Association of School Resource Officers.

[26] Fisher, B. W., & Devlin, D. N. (2020). School crime and the patterns of roles of school resource officers: Evidence from a national longitudinal study. Crime & Delinquency, 66(11), 1606-1629. Schools where the SRO followed the Triad Model, had reactionary SROs, low engagement SROs, or no SROs were compared.

[27] Counts, J., Randall, K. N., Ryan, J. B., & Katsiyannis, A. (2018). School resource officers in public schools: a national review. Education and Treatment of Children, 41(4), 405-430.

[28] Fisher, B. W., & Devlin, D. N. (2020). School crime and the patterns of roles of school resource officers: Evidence from a national longitudinal study. Crime & Delinquency, 66(11), 1606-1629.

[29] Ezell, M. (1989). Juvenile arbitration: Net widening and other unintended consequences. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 26(4), 358-377.

[30] Alpert, G. P., McLean, K., & Wolfe, S. (2017). Consent decrees: An approach to police accountability and reform. Police Quarterly, 20(3), 239-249.

[31] Powell, Z. A., Meitl, M. B., & Worrall, J. L. (2017). Police consent decrees and section 1983 civil rights litigation. Criminology & Public Policy16(2), 575-605.

[32] Temkin, D., (2019). Examining State and Federal Recommendations for Enhancing School Safety Against Targeted Violence. Child Trends.

[33] No author. (2020). Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[34] Gabriel, A., Zhou, V., Temkin, D. (2019). Visualizing data about the healthy schools policy landscape. Child Trends.

[35] Chriqui, J., Stuart-Cassel, V., Temkin, D., Pierkarz-Porter, E., Lao, K., Steed, H., Harper, K., Leider, J., & Gabriel, A. (2019). Using Policy to Create Healthy Schools: Resources to Support Policymakers and Advocates. Child Trends.

[36] State Statutes and Regulations for Healthy Schools School Year 2017-2018. Child Trends.

[37] Sacks, V., & Murphey, D. (2019). The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, nationally, by state, and by race or ethnicity. Child Trends.

[38] Stratford, B., Cook, E., Hanneke, R., Katz, E., Seok, D., Steed, H., … & Temkin, D. (2020). A Scoping Review of School-Based Efforts to Support Students Who Have Experienced Trauma. School Mental Health, 1-36.