USA Education First Look

What happens when schools get their own police officers?

Police in schools can help shape students’ lifelong view of law enforcement. But racial bias and criminal punishments for small infractions may damage the very relationships they hope to build, critics say.

Greeley Police Officer Brad Luebke talks with a student while visiting Meeker Elementary, in Greeley, Colo., in October 2016. School resource officers like Officer Luebke are faced with unique challenges during their day-to-day work in schools.
Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune/AP/File
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Police officers may hope that their presence in schools will help them build strong relationships with students, improving police-community relations over the long term. But achieving that goal may require rethinking law enforcement’s role in education, a new report suggests.

Looking at federal data from the 2013-2014 school year, researchers at Education Week found that students in schools with at least one school resource officer (SRO) were 1.5 times more likely to be arrested than their peers in schools that did not have a police presence. The disparity is particularly stark for black students, possibly because police presence is concentrated in districts with a higher proportion of minority students. Black boys were three times more likely to be arrested at school than white boys, the report found.

Rather than building relationships and improving outcomes, students who are arrested or referred to law enforcement can see a drop in school performance and are disproportionately more likely to get involved with the law again as adults, researchers say. Racial bias means that outcomes are particularly poor in communities of color.

“If you lock kids up when they’re young, they’re more likely to end up locked up as an adult,” Joseph Doyle, an associate professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, previously told The Christian Science Monitor. “So it looks like tough-on-crime doesn’t really work, it just leads to more crime.” 

Spurred by rising fears of violent crime during the 1980s and 1990s, some schools began turning to police to increase safety on campus. With federal funding, their presence only grew. Following tragedies like the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, an increasing number of parents called for security measures like metal detectors and armed officers. By 2013-14, 44,000 "school resource officers" worked in schools on a full- or part-time basis, Education Week reported. 

In some cases, hiring these officers has resulted in an impressive drop in incidents. When Burns Elementary School in Charleston, S.C., hired longtime area cop Eric Jourdan, it saw a decline from 35 incidents in the first half of the year to five in the second half of the year, The Post and Courier reported.

“Our community overall has such a poor perception of the reason for law enforcement,” Principal Lynn Owings told The Post and Courier. "Building that relationship with students when they are young will change their lives forever.”

But the national picture is less positive. Particularly in schools with a high proportion of minorities, the SROs are overused, taking on disciplinary functions that classroom teachers have traditionally performed, experts say.

“When you’re in charge of kids occasionally you need to discipline them, and when you have SROs, that’s who you’re going to rely on. That’s been the mechanical thing: They’re there, so you’ll use them,” Emily Owens, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, previously told the Monitor.

Arresting students, rather than having a classroom teacher discipline them, brings financial and emotional costs. An American Civil Liberties Union report found that arrested students were twice as likely to drop out of high school – and for those who appeared in court, that figure doubled.

Even for those who stay in school, their experience may change.

“Even though I had good grades, my teachers treated me differently after that,” explained Keshaundra Neal, arrested after walking past a fight in her school when she was 13, in a report for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education

“They saw me as someone who got into fights and got arrested,” she said. Many students report feeling traumatized by their encounter with law enforcement.

Compounding the problem, the cost of employing school resource officers means many schools with a police presence are less likely to have school counselors who can keep an eye on the psychological and developmental effects of arrests on children, Education Week reported. Detaining students also drains the budget of money that could be used to educate them.

So how can police officers help ensure safety without becoming disciplinarians who grease the school-to-prison pipeline? Training is key, National Association of School Resource Officers executive director Mo Canady told Education Week. SROs should see themselves not only as members of law enforcement, but also embrace their role as educators on issues like drug prevention and as informal counselors for students, Mr. Canady said.

The Obama administration supported this training.

"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct," then-Attorney General Eric Holder said.