by Jared Shelly
Global protests calling for fundamental changes to policing have led to one major development: school districts are ending relationships with police departments. Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Denver, and Portland, Ore. have already cut ties. Plenty of other cities are considering similar measures.
Politicians and school board officials advocating for the removal of school resource officers (SROs) argue that police presence inside schools criminalizes students for bad behavior, discriminates against black and brown students, and at worst, starts a school-to-prison pipeline. They also argue that resources could be better spent. In fact, the ACLU estimates that 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors, and 3 million are in schools with police but no nurses.
Proponents of SRO programs paint a much different picture. They say officers are trained in de-escalation, rarely arrest students, and develop strong relationships between the community and law enforcement.
“The number one goal of an SRO should be to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). “Removing the program gets rid of potentially the best community-based policing feature in a city or county. We’re in a time when the community and law enforcement need to be closer together, not further apart.”
Removing school officers also makes it harder to stop school shootings. Having a trained, armed professional on campus could be the difference between mass casualties and a prevented attack. In a 2019 incident in Eugene, Ore., for example, officer Steve Tims killed a parent who fired two shots from a 9mm outside Cascade Middle School. (Interestingly, Eugene recently announced that it’s phasing out its SRO program.)
Still, many shootings are over well before an officer can intervene. The Washington Post analyzed 200 incidents of gun violence, finding that SROs successfully gunned down a shooter only twice. In one instance, a coach talked down a would-be shooter and disarmed him with a hug.
Still, removing SROs leaves schools unprotected, argues Samuel B. Hoff, professor emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He says that the money savings aren’t worth sacrificing security. Also, many SROs are working from grants and don’t take from school budgets anyway, so removing them won’t mean they’ll automatically be replaced by a school nurse or counselor.
“Trying to save money might not be worth the risk to the students and faculty who could be victims in mass shooter scenarios,” said Hoff.
He also says the school-to-prison pipeline argument is overblown.
“I think the stereotype is that SROs are super ready to turn over offenders to the police and have them possibly go through juvenile courts or criminal courts if they’re old enough,” said Hoff. “I don’t think that’s the case from my experience.”
De-escalation and careful officer selection
You can’t police a school the way you police the streets. That’s a core message that NASRO delivered to the 10,000 officers it trained last year. The organization trains officers on implicit racial and ethnic bias, special needs, mental health, adolescent brain development, and the effects of social media.
“De-escalation is the thread that runs through everything we teach,” said Canady.
Security technology is also a major part of the job. SROs learn about visitor entry systems and how visitor’s ID cards can be quickly cross-referenced with sex offender databases. They use metal detectors and video surveillance. SROs need to help maintain those tech tools to ensure they’re performing at peak levels.
But all SRO programs are not created equally. Kenneth Alonzo Anderson, professor and associate dean of Howard University, and Meredith B.L. Anderson, a senior research associate at UNCF, argue in a new Brookings paper that it’s hard to discern which SRO programs are working.
“There is no common database to track SROs, training varies, and programs range from part-time to entire police departments dedicated to schools,” the professors wrote. “Accordingly, a national (or state) registry of SROs should be created to establish accountability and aid in preventing problematic officers from moving from school to school.”
Canady says success comes when SROs are carefully selected, well-trained, and truly want to strengthen bonds between law enforcement and the community. He argues that the SRO evaluation process should be rigorous. Being an SRO is a tough job, not a sunset tour for someone coasting into retirement. Canady says the best candidates are veteran officers who have a long history with a department, solid disciplinary records, good public relations skills, and high morals. Most importantly, they need to develop strong relationships with the community they’re serving.
Supervision should be just as rigorous, Canady argues, and if it’s not working out, quickly intervene and remove the officer from the assignment.
When asked for advice on how schools can pick up the security slack when SROs are removed, Canady went back to the school shooter argument.
“I’m not sure how you train a teacher or mental health specialist to stop an active shooter. I don’t see one stopping the shooter at Sandy Hook. In Parkland — and we don’t conduct training in Florida — there was an SRO on campus that didn’t even stop it. How can we prepare a teacher to do that?”
Jared Shelly is a freelance writer who writes about business and emerging technology. The opinions and positions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions held by Patriot One Technologies and inclusion of persons, companies, or methods herein should not be interpreted as an endorsement.