When you think about a School Resource Officer (SRO), what image enters your head? One in which a benign law enforcement officer helps provide a safe learning environment in the nation's schools, or one in which a power-crazy cop unjustifiably uses excessive force to control mischievous students. There's little doubt both types of SRO exist, and plenty more than fall between the two extremes; but, if you listen to the arguments for and against SROs, you will likely only hear about one or the other.
The Case for SROs in Every School
The call for SROs in every school has increased since a number of high-profile school shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and Santa Fe High School. Proponents generally use statistics compiled by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), which claim the presence of an SRO reduces crime in schools and juvenile arrests (PDF). NASRO recommends that “every school have at least one carefully selected and specially trained SRO”.
With regards to the cost of implementing an SRO program, NASRO claims that every $1.00 invested in SRO programs yields $11.13 of social and economic benefit. The financial benefits include the minimization of damage to school property, the reduction in the need for schools to call 9-1-1, and an increase in feelings of safety among students and staff. NASRO also claims students with mental health issues are more likely to get the help they need when an SRO is present.
The Case against SROs in Any Schools
At the other end of the spectrum, opponents of SRO programs claim they accelerate the “school-to-prison pipeline” by causing a higher rate of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests that funnel students into the criminal justice system. Groups such as the Justice Policy Institute claim there is no correlation between crime in schools and the presence of SROs (PDF), and that schools without an SRO program are just as safe as those with one.
Anti-SRO groups claim the money spend on running SRO programs (up to $80,000 per school per year according to NASRO) could be put to better use employing mental health professionals and restorative justice practitioners who “build students up rather than push them out”. The groups point to research showing 22% of school-age children have or have had a severe mental disorder, and that more financial support for mental health programs would yield better outcomes than the presence of an SRO.
The Problem with Finding the Middle Ground
The problem with finding the middle ground is that both proponents and opponents of SRO programs use data prepared by the National Center for Educational Statistics (PDF) to support their arguments. These data have been found to underrepresent school violence by up to 89% - the scale of underreporting being attributable to school administrators failing to distinguish crimes from violations of school rules, or not wishing for their schools to be labelled as “persistently dangerous”.
A more accurate study was recently compiled by Kenneth Alonzo Anderson of Howard University. In his report, Anderson concluded that school characteristics, enrollment size, and academic achievements are better predictors of school safety than SROs. His study backs up an analysis of school shootings by the Washington Post which found that in 225 of school shootings since 1999, at least 40 percent happened at a school with an SRO program. In only two if the shootings did an SRO prevent further bloodshed.
There is no Silver Bullet for School Safety
The conclusion drawn by Anderson from his research, and from many others trying to find a solution for school safety, is there is no silver bullet. SRO programs may be appropriate in certain circumstances - especially as it is impossible to quantify the deterrent effect they may have - but there is certainly a strong case for the money they cost to be used in other ways to prevent violence in schools before it escalates. Furthermore, if SRO programs are going to be enforced on schools by state legislation, there needs to be better SRO training to prevent the criminalization of young adults for poor decision making.
Somewhere between the pro-SRO groups and the anti-SRO groups are security experts favoring technology solutions. The security experts admit technology alone is not the answer to school safety everybody is looking for; but, with a balanced approach of trained SROs (where appropriate), the right allocation of mental health resources, and technology solutions, students can be better protected from violence in schools while teachers have the means to accelerate emergency response when the worst happens.
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