The Role of SROs in Schools
As far as I can remember, the schools I attended growing up were all equipped with police officers—who are referred to as School Resource Officers (SROs). It was normal for me to walk past an armed SRO in between classes or for a drug-sniffing dog to search the school grounds. Educated in the early decades of the twenty-first century, I attended primary and secondary school in the wake of a litany of mass school shootings that left those in charge of keeping children safe in schools scrambling for solutions. Their answer was to arm educational buildings with officers who were supposed to protect students (not police them). Their presence, however, did not stop school shootings (though stricter gun laws might’ve); instead, the line between law enforcement and ordinary school discipline became increasingly blurred.
Although SROs technically appeared in Michigan schools in the 1950s, their size and power increased in the 1990s and early 2000s to combat the aforementioned school shootings. When tragedies didn’t diminish, additional legislation was implemented in an attempt to make schoolhouses safer. When the Gun-Free Schools Act was passed in 1994, it mandated a yearlong suspension for any student who brought a firearm to school. While this seems reasonable, the Act also encouraged states receiving federal funds for education to introduce similar laws. As schools around the country began to adopt similar zero-tolerance policies, students were suspended for making a gun with their fingers, bringing a knife to school, and chewing a Pop-Tart pastry into the shape of a gun.
This is what is called “broken windows” policing. Broken windows is a criminological theory of crime that is centered around the belief that visible signs of crime such as graffiti, weapons, and shattered windows—or a student being disorderly in school—encourages other crimes. It has resulted in the police—in communities and in schools—cracking down on minor crimes with the hope that it will prevent more serious offenses. This theory of crime, however, has been repeatedly discredited; mass arrests or expulsions for low-level offenses do not make cities or schools safer, but access to resources and improved educational programming does. We have created crimes in the pursuit of justice, but are actually doing more harm than good.
This can be especially true for students of color. During the 2013-2014 school year, almost 70,000 students were arrested in America across 8,000 public schools (an average of 8.75 students per school). The same year, Black students made up 15.5% of the national school population but constituted 33.4% of the students arrested in schools; their white counterparts made up 50.3% of the students in school, and 33.7% of those arrested. A 2010 study conducted by researchers at Villanova University found that the punitiveness of a school's discipline policy did not positively correlate with the students’ delinquent involvement or drug use but instead with the percentage of its students that were Black. To compare apples to apples, Black girls in school are six times more likely than white girls to be suspended.
American policing has never been neutral; it started as slave patrol, then moved to enforce Jim Crow laws, and later focused on the War on Drugs (which was really just a public health crisis). As police forces have grown physically and monetarily in communities, on college campuses, and in public schools, crime rates have not substantially decreased (although incarceration rates skyrocketed). While at their best, SROs can reduce the likelihood of hostile situations in schools by providing support, mentorship, and guidance to students, at their worst, they can increase arrests, suspensions, and expulsions, instilling fear in students of color who have seen people like them be ignored, abused, and killed by similar officers.
Furthermore, when students are arrested at school they are deliberately entered into the juvenile justice system; a system that is nearly impossible to escape. While suspensions and expulsions may seem like a less severe sanction, students who are forced to spend time away from school as a disciplinary action are about 31% more likely to drop out or repeat a grade than their peers. While it is difficult to prove that suspensions and/or expulsions cause further delinquent behavior, they have been confirmed to negatively impact educational outcomes, and proper education has been proven to reduce crime.
In Philadelphia—where I currently live—primary and secondary education has been a longstanding issue. A study conducted for Princeton University in 2017 found that one out of every five Philadelphia residents describes education, not crime, as the biggest issue facing the city. Years of chronic underfunding in Philadelphia has drastically affected educators and students as they learn and work in buildings that have asbestos exposure, rodent issues, mold, and peeling lead paint. Some schools even lack adequate heating. Furthermore, a majority of students in Philadelphia will attend a crowded classroom in a school with a police officer but no school counselor, social worker, psychologist, or nurse.
Although money has not been found to repair the ailing school buildings or properly support students in Philadelphia, in 2013 the state allocated $400 million dollars to build State Correctional Institution (SCI) Phoenix, a maximum-security prison located 30 miles outside of the city. To be fair: the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) at the time was operating at 105% capacity and as a maximum-security prison, SCI Phoenix houses people who are incarcerated for long periods of time—if not life—and the new facility is better equipped to house a long-term population than SCI-Graterford, the prison it replaced. During the fall of 2019, I took a course inside SCI Phoenix as a part of Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program and I can confirm that for a prison, it is state of the art.
It is not a negative thing that the prison is so (comparatively) nice. People who are incarcerated do not deserve to live in cramped, inhumane conditions. They, like you and like me, should have access to classrooms, gyms, treatment programs, and chapel services—but so should children in schools. Philadelphia’s expenditure is—in my opinion—very telling of where the city expects to see its students end up. While not all police are SROs, all SROs are police, and when we pull students out of school for minor (and sometimes non-purposeful) offenses and punish them to the fullest extent of the law, we are really just pushing them into the prison industrial complex.
As the nation reckoned with police brutality this past summer, several school districts—in cities such as Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, just to name a few—announced they were removing or significantly reducing the presence of police officers in schools. While the idea of SROs is not necessarily inherently malicious, when more attention (and money) is given to disciplining students rather than providing them with supportive services, their educational trajectory can be severely impacted. Furthermore, SROs are often asked to help students work through family crises, mental health struggles, suicidal ideation, and childhood trauma. While this support is certainly important and necessary, SROs are not trained professionals in these fields and funds would probably better be spent on a person—such as a counselor, social worker, or therapist—qualified to fulfill that position. As is, students are being over-policed and under-invested in.