It was at a baby shower last year that Sgt. Yanira Rosario spotted the first person she’d ever arrested.
And it was at that moment that the Boston School Police officer felt truly confident that she was helping people.
The man, several years removed from his arrest for marijuana possession, was at the shower with his sister. He came over to Rosario and thanked her for what she had done for him.
“He told me he didn’t know what he would’ve done if that hadn’t happened,” says Rosario.
He was scared straight, Rosario says as she watches over a crowd of students in the English High School lunchroom at the end of last school year. And hearing how she had changed his life left an impression.
“That confirmed for me that I was doing the right thing,” she says. “That I was doing what I should be doing.”
Rosario’s story is the side of school policing that doesn’t make the nightly news. During the past year, law enforcement officers in schools have often made headlines for all the wrong reasons. One in South Carolina flipped a disruptive student’s desk – with her still in it. One in Texas body-slammed a mouthy 12-year-old. And one in Baltimore kicked and slapped a student he mistakenly thought was trespassing.
At a moment when officers in schools are seen by some as a solution to the threat of violence in school, the debate has been turned on its head: Are these so-called school resource officers (SROs) actually the cause of too much violence? Instead of making schools safer, are they ramping up a disciplinary arms race – unnecessarily turning typical bad behavior into criminal offenses?
Experts are wary of drawing conclusions, pointing to a lack of data. Yet SROs appear to be here to stay. From 1975 to 2007, the share of schools that had SROs jumped from 1 percent to 40 percent. In 2014, there were almost 31,000 SROs working in public schools.
Now, the question is what to do to help officers called on to play playground bouncer one moment and guidance counselor the next – and to know which is required when. Better training, most say, is a must.
But beyond that, the experiences of Rosario and others speak to a less teachable trait of those who excel: a respect for their students, with a dash of tough love.
“For some kids, ‘scared straight’ is effective,” she says. But “not every kid who finds himself in handcuffs is going to react the same way.”
Knowing the difference is how to avoid making headlines.
Training amid mouse ears
Last month, the pathway to that knowledge lay in Magic Kingdom Ballroom 3.
There, at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., officers could hear Pepperdine law professor Bernard James talk about changes to school law.
In Magic Kingdom Ballroom 4, they could learn about adolescent brain development from Greg Richards, PhD.
The annual convention of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) answered most of the questions surrounding school policing with the same word: training. That’s what the sessions amid Disney music, Mickey Mouse ears, and children wielding plastic light-
sabers were all about.
An SRO needs to be able to be almost all things to all students, says Don Bridges, first vice president of NASRO and an SRO in Maryland’s Baltimore County. He’s not there just to protect students and engage active shooters, but also to be a friend, mentor, parental figure, counselor, and psychologist.
And not to overreact to frequent outbursts of juvenile rebellion.
“When you look at these incidents that have been all over the news, a lot of it goes back to training,” says Mr. Bridges.
Among the departments that NASRO says have reached out for training: ones in Maryland and South Carolina that have been at the center of high-profile incidents.
A coincidence? NASRO executive director Mo Canady doesn’t think so.
“We’ve been able to talk about how you keep this from happening,” he says. “It’s having the right person in the job and having them properly trained.”
But others aren’t sure it is so simple.
While incidents of excessive force are alarming, some researchers worry that even the most well-intentioned and successful SRO programs can have a less obvious but far more negative effect. They could be giving students criminal records – throwing them into the prison pipeline – for offenses that should instead be handled by parents, teachers, and school administrators. This is seen as being particularly true for minority students.
While research is scarce, some studies have found evidence suggesting this is a valid concern.
“As schools increase their use of police officers, the percentage of crimes involving non-serious violent offenses that are reported to law enforcement increases,” concluded a 2011 analysis of six years of United States Department of Education school crime and safety surveys.
A collection of US Department of Education civil rights data from 2013 and 2014 found that black students are 2.3 times as likely to have their cases handed over to law enforcement or be subject to school-related arrest as white students. The report also found that 51 percent of high schools “with high black and Latino student enrollment” have sworn law enforcement officers, compared with 42 percent of all high schools.
Even in relatively controversy-free departments, issues can arise.
Arrests by Boston School Police officers have dropped sharply in recent years, from 464 in the 2007-08 school year to 152 in 2013-14, The Boston Globe reported – a trend the department attributes partly to the 2008 decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana possession in Massachusetts. Yet a 2012 report found that in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, “arrested students were disproportionately African-American.”
In 2009, for example, African-Americans accounted for about one-third of the student body but represented about 63 percent of all arrests.
“This is a cost-benefit analysis, and we have to weigh the cost of putting them in there against the benefits,” says Jason Nance, an associate professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville. “What I worry about more is the unintended consequences of putting those officers in those schools.”
But supporters of SROs say the issue can turn the other way, too.
NASRO’s Bridges points to one case last year when two seniors he’d known since they were in ninth grade got into a fight off campus and one of their assailants was stabbed. “It was a clear case of self-defense,” he recalls.
As an SRO, Bridges talked his students into telling police everything that had happened. In the end, there were no consequences, and the students graduated this past spring.
“Had they not come forward, had they not had that relationship with me, they probably would have been charged, and they probably would have spent a considerable amount of time going through the system, having to prove their innocence,” he says.
D.J. Schoeff, an SRO for eight years in Carmel, Ind., says he could name “thousands of examples” in which his relationship with students “changed maybe a decision they’ve made, maybe a career path that they’ve chosen.”
“There’s no way for us to tell how many people we’re positively impacting.”
In some areas, they are effectively replacing counselors. As SRO numbers rise, the number of school counselors is on the decline.
SROs vs. school counselors
Three of America’s five biggest school districts have more security officers than counselors, the 74, an education website, reported. New York City, the country’s largest school district, has almost twice as many security officers as counselors.
“I don’t think it’s possible to train police officers to act as counselors as well as a counselor would,” says Aaron Kupchik, a sociologist at the University of Delaware in Newark who focuses on school policing.
“We’re asking police officers to do more and more,” he adds. “I think this is an example of asking police to do too much.”
Jathan Melendez, a recent graduate of Manual Arts High School, says he never interacted with Los Angeles School Police officers unless they were breaking up fights, searching students’ bags, or arresting them. Most of the time, he says, they would sit by the back door of the school and watch students as they walked by.
“They literally sit there and look at students, keeping their eyes on certain students,” he says. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with them being on campus.”
“If they’re trying to be better role models, or give students a different view on officers in community or in schools, they should at least try to have conversation,” he adds.
Part of the problem can be a lack of clarity about what SROs should be doing.
Some school districts expect SROs to be little more than security guards; others rely on them to take more of a counseling role. Some departments meticulously vet their SRO candidates, others put rookies on the job, and still others see the assignment as a demotion.
Attending four high schools in the Detroit area, Michael Reynolds got to see these stark variations firsthand.
After splitting his freshman year at two high schools, he transferred to Frank Cody High School – at the time considered one of the worst high schools in Detroit and staffed with several police officers.
“The interactions I had with the SROs were completely different from the other two schools,” he says. “They treated me like I was a prisoner. I was talked down to, or they would over-enforce the rules.”
Day to day, he says he saw officers citing students for minor violations and male officers talking to female students in a way that was “pretty inappropriate.”
When a riot broke out in front of the school, he recalls getting arrested and taken to jail after another student punched him in the face. Halfway through the school year he says he came to school without his ID; an SRO took him to the principal and he was suspended for a week. After he was escorted off the premises without suspension papers, a police officer stopped him and gave him a $600 ticket for being truant.
“I think they liked to get you in trouble,” he says. “They looked for the littlest thing to kick you out for.”
Mr. Reynolds left Cody at the end of the year, and that was when his perceptions of school police changed. In two years at Loyola High School, his interactions with the school’s sole private security guard were radically different.
“The guy understood us. He talked to us with dignity and respect; he treated us like young men and not like prisoners,” he says.
Now a student at Central Michigan University, Reynolds was a guest on a panel at the NASRO conference. “Not all students have negative interactions with SROs. I have had really positive ones as well.”
“They have a very crucial role in our country right now,” he says.
Rising concerns about safety
At a time when police-community relations are fraught, SROs are increasingly being promoted as promising vehicles for community policing.
President Obama said in a July town hall that “one of the things that [the best police departments] are doing that’s very smart is starting to send police officers into schools ... so the kids, when they’re still [young], start getting to know police officers.”
But some studies show that while students may like school police officers, SROs don’t change opinions of police in general.
The more common rationale for the need for SROs, however, is safety.
In Boston, one of the few photos on Rosario’s desk in her office at the English High School was taken in January, when she received a commendation from Boston Police Commissioner William Evans after retrieving a gun on school grounds. In 2014, the quick response of SROs at an Oregon high school was credited with stopping a school shooting.
To be sure, school safety has become a top priority amid evolving threats.
A focus of the Disneyland NASRO conference was “to explore terrorism threats to school safety.” Two speakers from federal agencies gave presentations on homegrown violent extremism and preventing terrorist attacks in schools.
Meanwhile, an industry has developed around school security – selling everything from video cameras and bulletproof glass for schools to training programs and military-grade medical kits for SROs.
The Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute booth was raffling a Sig Sauer MCX rifle at the conference. On the other side of the hall, one of the main sponsors, Nightlock, was demonstrating its classroom door barricade. Until a few years ago, the company had catered mostly to the residential security market, says co-owner Jack Taylor. After the Sandy Hook massacre, “schools started calling,” he says. Schools are now about 60 percent of the company’s sales.
SROs are part of that trend. But data don’t offer conclusions about how much they help.
“There’s such a widespread belief that [SROs] make kids safer, yet we don’t really know that. That’s just anecdotal or someone’s impression,” says Sheri Bauman, a professor at the University of Arizona College of Education in Tucson, who is conducting a study of 47 Arizona high schools. “We need to have some scientific analyses that answer those questions, and others.”
Adam Watkins, an associate professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says he should be more skeptical of SROs than most other parents, having studied their effects and seen some of the negative consequences. But he says he still derives “some emotional comfort knowing that someone armed is there at the school.”
“You can’t overstate the emotional part of concerns for safety,” he adds. “From a cost-benefit standpoint I’m not sure SROs will ever make financial sense, but in that cost-benefit analysis it’s very hard to quantify emotion.”
Others aren’t so sure. Nicole Bracy, a senior research associate at Harder + Company Community Research in San Diego, has been studying school policing since she was a graduate student 10 years ago. She also now has a daughter in kindergarten.
Would she want an SRO in her daughter’s school?
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” she says.
“I have additional concerns because my daughter is African-American,” she adds, “but frankly even if she was a white child, I would have concerns about her being in school with a police officer.”
With pride, Boston’s Rosario describes how she can count the number of arrests she’s made in her career on one hand. She knows that many student arrests don’t have such positive long-term outcomes as her first. But she’s convinced that she can change students’ lives for the good.
“I always make sure that they know that I’m here to help them,” she says. “We are mentors, we are counselors, we are big brothers, big sisters to the kids.”