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Is Deploying School Resource Officers ‘Over-Policing’ Urban Schools?

SROs are often mentioned when the discussion revolves around active shooters on campus, but that discussion should be about more than just shooters and should include the entire community, some experts say.

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The school shootings from the last few years have prompted action by school districts to do something that might curb or mitigate a potential mass shooting, and one of the “tools in the toolbox,” is school resource officers (SROs).

Many districts have responded by partnering with local law enforcement and use retired or designated law enforcement personnel to patrol campuses as SROs. They try to earn the trust of students and can offer a place where students can discuss anonymously situations that could lead to violence.

The hope is that trust and the ability of the SROs to gather data could head off a potential disaster.

But not everyone believes there should be police in schools. The Sacramento City Unified School District in California recently approved a new schools safety plan that removes five of the eight officers who patrol city campuses. “One of the challenges is that urban areas where there are predominantly black and Latino students, we are overly policed, which creates a pipeline to prison,” Carl Pinkston of the Black Parallel School Board told a local television station.

Former middle school teacher and current associate professor at Howard University Kenneth Anderson conducted a study in North Carolina between 2013 and 2017. It looked at elementary and middle school students and the presence of SROs corresponding to 16 crime-related offenses, and concluded there was no improvement with SRO presence. The study was publicized by the Brookings Institution.

Also, in North Carolina, a group called the Education Justice Alliance has recommended all police officers be removed from Wake County.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, pointed to statistics by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) that juvenile arrests have been on the decline. According to the JJDP, juvenile arrests declined 72 percent from 1996 to 2017.

“We teach SROs to take the approach of de-escalation, and we find that carefully selected, specifically trained SROs not only do not contribute to [juvenile arrests], but they do a pretty good job of acting as filters and developing good relationships with the students at the schools,” Canady said.

He said one of the goals is for SROs to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth. “And that doesn’t have a race or a color boundary to it,” Canady said. “We’re trying to establish positive relations with all students and see SROs who are carefully selected and specifically trained being in the best position to try to remedy this problem between minority communities and law enforcement.”

Anderson said there are many factors to consider when deciding whether to have SROs on campus and that it should be a community decision.

“What I argue for is really letting the community decide what those districts need,” Anderson said. “We always just react when an incident happens whereas we really need to plan these things and bring the stakeholders together to decide what works best for those communities.”

Anderson said school safety has been driven by school shootings and that school safety is much more than shootings. He also suggested that most of the school shootings haven’t taken place in heavily Latino and black schools and said those schools are over-policed. “We don’t want to have policies that punish those communities for things that aren’t necessarily happening in those environments.”

He said it may be important to examine the communities in which the students live because they bring their experiences, positive and negative, onto campus. He suggested that school districts not hire an SRO just for the sake of protecting against a possible active shooter.

“There’s a huge need for school resource officers to deal with the tensions that exist within a community and how they mitigate those tensions in schools,” Anderson said. And he said there needs to be more training, especially for dealing with students with special needs.

“You have to decide what does success look like for a school resource officer,” Anderson said. He said if a district is going to spend the resources on SROs, the community and district should decide beforehand what they want from that officer. “What does success look like for that community and once they define that, they need to regularly report on the measures and outcomes based on what they decided successful outcomes should be.”


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