In the United States, nearly half of all public schools have an armed police officer on campus, a practice that has proliferated significantly in the wake of school shootings.1 While on duty at a school, School Resource Officers (SROs) respond to violent and crime-related incidents (e.g., drug possession by students), as well as take on more informal duties, such as mentoring, coaching, or even teaching classes.
Though some research indicates that officers’ presence on school campuses may reduce certain types of student victimization, there is no hard evidence that they reduce or prevent gun violence. On the other hand, a host of harms have been associated with placing police in schools, including: introducing young people to the criminal legal system for infractions that might otherwise be handled by school administrators or teachers, high rates of suspension and expulsion, and reported low rates of school interconnectedness. Each of these disproportionately impacts Black, brown, and disabled students.
Several jurisdictions have begun to experiment with returning these responsibilities to non-law enforcement positions, or replacing them with trained school mental health providers, conflict resolution professionals, and unarmed security staff. The early results are positive:
Returning SROs to the street and replacing them with unarmed security staff and certified school mental health providers can reduce the overall 911 call burden on law enforcement, improve student outcomes, and integrate a valuable public health approach to the challenge of promoting on-campus safety.
School Resource Officers (SROs) are sworn law enforcement officers assigned to a school on a full- or part-time basis. The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the leading school policing advocacy organization in the United States, recommends that officers complete a 40-hour SRO training, which includes programming on de-escalation, youth relationship building strategies, and supporting students with emotional and behavioral challenges. Though some districts require that officers complete the NASRO course, this is not a requirement nationwide.
Some school districts operate their own independent police departments. For example, over 300 school districts in Texas run their own internal police department.2 In other places, districts receive their SROs on secondment from the local municipal police department. Officers assigned to schools via municipal departments typically undergo an application process similar to other special unit assignment roles.3
Although much of the political debate regarding the role of SROs focuses on their ability to protect students from mass shooting events, officers in schools are tasked primarily with three day-to-day responsibilities: law enforcement, education, and informal counseling.
There is some evidence that the presence of an SRO can reduce the number of physical attacks among students without a weapon, as compared to schools without SROs on campus; research demonstrates that officers’ presence contributes to a reduction of six fight or threat incidents per 100 students per year. There also is a 29 percent increase in the detection of drugs and weapons.4 However, it is important to note that while SROs contributes to a greater detection of firearms, research does not indicate that they reduce serious gun-related offenses committed on campus, including school shootings.
Still, victimization at schools has dropped considerably since the 1990s, with overall student victimization lower in 2019 (the last year before student attendance changed due to the pandemic) than at any time in the last 30 years.5 (Rates of youth suicide and homicide, by contrast, have grown, but these incidents largely occur off-campus.6)
Furthermore on-campus violence is most likely to occur during a relatively small portion of the day: the hour before school starts, lunch, or the hour after school lets out.
Despite these trends, the number of officers assigned to schools has grown, primarily in response to high profile school shootings. In 2016, the last year for which they produced data, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that there were more than 52,000 SROs on school campuses, or 8 percent of all active law enforcement officers in the United States.7 This number is expected to increase as states (most recently Florida8, Maryland9 and Kentucky10) pass minimum staffing requirements for police officers in schools.
The mismatch between assigned police resources and patterns of on-campus student violence and victimization suggest that police time and attention might better be spent investigating and deterring off-campus violence.11
Perhaps most importantly, the presence of SROs comes at a significant cost disproportionately borne by Black and brown students, and students with disabilities.
Assigning SROs to schools has created a more punitive learning atmosphere in which the policing of students’ behavior puts them at higher risk for suspension, expulsion, and referrals for arrest.12 This dynamic commonly is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, whereby students are disciplined through introduction to the criminal legal system. During the 2015 to 2016 school year, nearly 300,000 students were referred to policing agencies and/or arrested.13 As schools reopened from pandemic-related closures, this practice continued. A 2022 investigation by ProPublica found that, after the State of Illinois passed a law banning schools from fining students, schools began referring students to SROs for ticketing – a legal loophole resulting in 4,000 students and their families being ticketed each year. 14
In addition to ushering young people into the criminal legal system for behavior that otherwise might have remained internal to a school’s administration, the presence of SROs on campus has been shown to increase rates of out-of-school suspension and expulsion.15 This is particularly important because missing school days puts students at a greater risk of dropping out – and failing to complete high school, in turn, increases the likelihood of poor health, employment, and legal outcomes in adulthood.16
These punitive disciplinary measures and their collateral consequences hit Black, brown, and students with disabilities hardest. In 2019, Black children represented only 15 percent of the student body across the United States, yet comprised 34 percent of all student body arrests.17 In its report to then President Trump and Vice President Pence, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that Black students with disabilities represent only 2 percent of the student body across the United States and almost 8 percent of total student body arrests.18
The presence of armed officers on school campuses puts some of our most vulnerable students at a greater risk for serious challenges later in life. Simply put, this approach to keeping youth safe comes at the expense of their ability to learn, develop, and grow.
Calls for more officers increase after every major school shooting. This is an understandable reaction to horrific events, and yet there is no evidence that greater law enforcement presence deters or reduces the severity of mass shootings. In fact, by contrast, a study of almost 40 years of school shootings shows no relationship between armed officers on site and a reduction of injuries, and that an armed officer on site may even serve as an incentive for a distressed student to commit “suicide by cop.”19
A special report by the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services lists 20 lessons learned from 41 attacks on school properties across the United States.20 Of these lessons, only one – trouble accessing secured buildings – was uniquely a law enforcement concern. Specifically, law enforcement officers responding to suspected school shootings were unable to get inside due to policies that lock school doors to prevent unauthorized access. This challenge is one that is faced regularly by fire departments in their day-to-day work, and is addressed through training and site familiarization instead of co-locating fire departments in facilities.
The report’s remaining 19 lessons could be accomplished or initiated by school-based mental health providers and unarmed school security staff, such as assessing and building positive climates in schools, reporting and taking concerning behavior seriously, hiring staff members to whom students feel comfortable talking if they notice concerning peer behavior, and creating comprehensive safety plans in the event of an emergency.
Extensive research on school behavior has shown that a supportive, inclusive, and well-resourced school environment can reduce the occurrence of aggressive student behavior and victimization, even among students who have previously displayed such behaviors.
The benefits of such environments are felt off campus, as well. Merely having access to mental health providers has been shown to reduce youth suicide.21 This is one of several examples of how the provision of supportive services to students can make an entire community safer.
Unfortunately, developing a nurturing educational environment can be hindered by the hallway and classroom presence of officers who have the ability to detain, handcuff, and arrest students.22 For this reason, and also in response to the murder of George Floyd and ensuing protests, fifty school districts across the United States have terminated police contracts and replaced officers with specialists focused on healing and growth.23 Here, we examine how this process has played out in several districts.
The Oakland Unified School District and Des Moines Public Schools ended their SRO contracts in June 2020 and February 2021, respectively.24 In addition to removing SROs from the campus, this change returned to school administrators the authority to determine whether or not to refer rule-breaking students to the police for possible charges.
Several additional changes were implemented after SROs were removed from campuses in Oakland, including retraining school security officers (non-sworn police officers) in restorative practices.25 Restorative practices are alternative discipline models implemented within a classroom or similar educational setting, such as peer mediation, restorative circles involving disputing students, and conflict resolution. Restorative practices are an extension of restorative justice, which is more often used to address harm occurring within a criminal legal setting.26
When used in schools, restorative practices are demonstrated to reduce discipline referrals and in-school suspensions, as well as improve social relationships among students.27 For example, a pilot study initiated in Ontario measured the effect of restorative interventions and found reductions in behavioral infractions, fighting, the use of racial slurs, and insubordination.28 The study also observed strengthened social relationships between students and hypothesized that the new, inclusive climate ushered in by restorative practices impacted the overall reduction in student absences.
Though restorative practices have been implemented in Oakland for only two school years and in Des Moines for only one, early results are promising.
Districts were able to cover the cost for new restorative practices, policies, and specialists by terminating the previous police department contracts. Doing so freed up $3,000,000 in Oakland and $750,000 in Des Moines.
Two other major school districts have started removing SROs and replacing them with unarmed security specialists who are able to intervene in and de-escalate student conflict. Note that the districts described below have not posted any definitive results for how this change has impacted calls for service, referrals to police, or student behavior.
The Salem-Kaiser School District, which serves the Salem, Oregon metropolitan area, ended its school resource officer contract starting with the 2021 school year, replacing SROs with unarmed security specialists. Their role is to ensure students are attending classes and to break up fights. These employees are required to attend the same restorative justice training that other school staff are expected to attend and, most importantly, cannot arrest or refer anyone for arrest.32
Since 2020, the Chicago Public School District, one of the largest school districts in the United States, has allowed Local School Councils to vote whether to keep their SROs. Schools that remove or reduce their reliance on SROs instead hire Youth Intervention Specialists. These positions do not have the authority to refer students to arrest, and focus on conflict mediation, fight de-escalation, and at-risk students’ attendance.33 At current count, only 19 out of 91 Chicago public high schools have voted to retain two SROs on campus, and 22 schools have voted to host only one officer. This move has effectively cut officers’ on-campus presence by about one third.34
In 2021, the Los Angeles Unified School district cut 133 police positions and replaced them with 211 mental health counselors, psychiatric social workers, restorative justice teachers, and School Climate Advocates (educational professionals whose sole job is to provide conflict resolution, socio-emotional support, and inspiration for students).35 Following the change, mid-year school data revealed increases in proficiency levels for math and English, a decrease in suspension rates, and an increase in the number of students on-track in college preparatory classes.
This solution is not unique to big cities. The professional associations of various school-based mental health providers have proposed minimum staffing requirements that would enable any school to respond adequately to the emotional needs of students:
Maintaining appropriate ratios of school-based mental health providers can produce positive results among student bodies. High schools with fewer students to counselors have significantly lower rates of suspensions, disciplinary infractions, violence, and threats of violence.39 Additional studies regarding the use of school-based mental health providers find reductions in suspension rates and disciplinary infractions in both middle and high schools, reports of middle school students having stronger relationships with educators, and overall reductions in behavioral problems.40
School safety is more than the absence of violence; it is also the presence of an environment that is conducive to learning. To the limited extent that SROs can impact incidences of violence in schools, this comes at the expense of the success of Black, brown, and disabled students. School districts that have transitioned from an armed model to unarmed security and school-based mental health professionals are able to reduce instances of violence in school, create the environment necessary for students to succeed both in and out of the classroom, and allow officers to focus their time and resources on effective community safety strategies.
1 Sorensen, L. C., Acosta, M. A., Engberg, J., & Bushway, S. (2021). The Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing across the U.S. EdWorkingPaper No. 21-476. In Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. https://doi.org/10.26300/heqx-rc69
2 Méndez, M. (2022). Almost 100 Texas school districts have added their own police departments since 2017, but not everyone feels safer. The Texas Tribune. https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/15/uvalde-school-officers-texas-shootings/
3 Supporting Safe Schools | COPS Office. (n.d.). https://cops.usdoj.gov/supportingsafeschools
4 Sorensen, A., Engberg, & Bushway, Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing across the U.S
5 Irwin, V., Wang, K., Cui, J., Zhang, J., & Thompson, A. (2021). Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2020. NCES 2021-092/NCJ 300772. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2021/2021092.pdf
6 Puzzanchera, C., Hockenberry, S., & Sickmund, M. (2022). Youth and the Juvenile Justice System. In Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). National Center for Juvenile Justice. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/publications/2022-national-report.pdf
7 Number of full-time law enforcement officers in the United States from 2004 to 2021. (2022). [Dataset]. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/191694/number-of-law-enforcement-officers-in-the-us/
8 Safe-school officers at each public school, Fla. Stat. §1006.12 (2002). http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=1000-1099/1006/Sections/1006.12.html
9 School Safety Coordinator, MD. Code Ann. Education §7-1508. (West Supp. 2018 & rev. 2021) https://govt.westlaw.com/mdc/Document/N7BEB2900A14011EBAE549B02EE0E5B72?viewType=FullText&originationContext=documenttoc&transitionType=CategoryPageItem&contextData=(sc.Default)
10 H.B. 63, 2022 Reg. Sess. (2022). https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/recorddocuments/bill/22RS/hb63/bill.pdf
11 National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Multi-year Table 1. Number of school resource officers, number of public schools, and the number of public schools with school resource officers, by full- and part-time school resource officer status: 2003–04 through 2015–16 [Dataset]. In School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ssocs/tables/tab_my01_2016_all.asp?referrer=csshttps://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ssocs/tables/tab_my01_2016_all.asp?referrer=css.
13 Who is Most Affected by the School to Prison Pipeline? (2021). AU School of Education Online Magazine. Retrieved from https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/school-to-prison-pipeline/
14 Cohen, J., & Smith Richards, J. (2022). The Price Kids Pay: Schools and Police Punish Students With Costly Tickets for Minor Misbehavior. ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/illinois-school-police-tickets-fines
15 Brown, J. (2022). Wake County school board votes to keep police in schools as district moves to beef up safeguards. ABC11. Retrieved from https://abc11.com/school-resource-officers-student-safety-wake-county-schools-police/11985999/.; Sorensen, Acosta, Engberg, & Bushway, Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing across the U.S.
16 U.S. Department of Education. (2019). Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html
17 Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, Youth and the Juvenile Justice System. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. (2022). Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cge/racial-ethnic-enrollment
18 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2019). Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students of Color with Disabilities. In U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. https://www.usccr.gov/files/pubs/2019/07-23-Beyond-Suspensions.pdf
19 Peterson, J. K., Densley, J. A., & Erickson, G. (2021). Presence of Armed School Officials and Fatal and Nonfatal Gunshot Injuries During Mass School Shootings, United States, 1980-2019. JAMA Network Open, 4(2), e2037394. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.37394
20 Allison, Jeff, Mo Canady, and Frank G. Straub. 2020. School Resource Officers: Averted School Violence Special Report. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-w0903-pub.pdf
21 Hoffmann, J. A., Attridge, M. M., Carroll, M. S., Simon, N. E., Beck, A. F., & Alpern, E. R. (2023). Association of Youth Suicides and County-Level Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas in the US. JAMA pediatrics, 177(1), 71–80. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4419
22 Hawkins, J., Farrington, D., & Catalano, R. (1998). Reducing Violence Through the Schools. In D. Elliott, B. Hamburg, & K. Williams (Eds.), Violence in American Schools: A New Perspective (pp. 188-216). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9780511840913.007
23 Riser-Kositsky, M., Sawchuk, S., & Peele, H. (2022). School Police: Which Districts Cut Them? Which Brought Them Back? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/which-districts-have-cut-school-policing-programs/2021/06
24 Ibid.; Getachew, S. (2021). Oakland Eliminated its School Police Force—So What Happens Now? KQED. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/arts/13893831/oakland-eliminated-its-school-police-force-so-what-happens-now; McBride, A. (2022). After Rudsdale shooting, Oakland schools grapple with questions of safety. The Oaklandside. Retrieved from https://oaklandside.org/2022/10/17/oakland-school-shooting-ousd-police-campus-safety/.; Williams, J. (2021). Lessons from Oakland’s move to police-free schools. EdSource. Retrieved from https://edsource.org/2021/lessons-from-oaklands-move-to-police-free-schools/661400
25 Getachew, Oakland Eliminated its School Police Force—So What Happens Now?
26 Restorative justice has been implemented for decades and takes a personalized approach on handling the aftermath of a crime (Vitale, 2021). It centers both the victims of crimes and aides incarcerated individuals in the areas of education, healthcare, and counseling as they re-enter society. While restorative practices mimic some of the same tenets of restorative justice (e.g., mediation, restoration of community ties, harm restitution), restorative practices differ from restorative justice in that they are proactive and involve children and young adults who are not involved in criminal proceedings.
27 Katic, B., Alba, L. A., & Johnson, A. H. (2020). A systematic evaluation of restorative justice practices: School violence prevention and response. Journal of school violence, 19(4), 579-593. https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2020.1783670
28 Rideout, G., Karen, R., Salinitri, G., & Marc, F. (2010). Measuring the impact of restorative justice practices: Outcomes and contexts. Journal of Educational Administration and Foundations, 21(2), 35.
29 Kopsa, A. (2022). The City That Kicked Cops Out of Schools and Tried Restorative Practices Instead. In These Times. https://inthesetimes.com/article/the-city-that-kicked-cops-out-of-schools-and-tried-restorative-practices-instead
30 Kopsa, The City That Kicked Cops Out of Schools and Tried Restorative Practices Instead.
31 Johnson Trammell, K. (2022). Superintendent Report. In The Oaklandside. Oakland Unified School District. Retrieved from https://oaklandside.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/22-1117-Superintendents-Report-May-11-2022.pdf
32 Pate, N., & Lugo, D. (2021). Salem-Keizer hires security staff with former school resource officer money. Statesman Journal. Retrieved from https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/education/2021/12/16/salem-keizer-security-guards-school-resource-officer-money-defund-racial-equity-juvenile-justice/8903374002/
33 Chicago Public Schools. (2022). Youth Intervention Specialist (Guidance). Retrieved from https://cpsk12il.taleo.net/careersection/3/jobdetail.ftl?job=P115064&tz=GMT-06%3A00&tzname=America%2FChicago.
34 Issa, N., & Karp, S. (2022). As cops leave the Chicago Public Schools, a new model of resolving conflicts takes shape. Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved March from https://chicago.suntimes.com/education/2022/6/16/23166422/school-resource-police-officer-sro-cops-cps-public-gage-park-high-school-hyde-park-farragut-curie
35 Walker, T. (2021). LAUSD Student Organizers Say Former School Police Should Not Serve in New Student Advocate Role. WitnessLA. Retrieved from https://witnessla.com/lausd-student-organizers-say-former-school-police-employees-should-not-serve-in-new-student-advocate-role/.; Palmer, P. (2021). LAUSD'S Black Student Achievement Plan helping students accomplish personal, academic goals. ABC7 Los Angeles. Retrieved from https://abc7.com/lausd-black-students-student-achievement-plan-education/11402389/.; Washington, A. (2022). Black Students Fought to Defund School Police in LA and Hire Mental Health Counselors Instead. Capital B. Retrieved from https://capitalbnews.org/black-student-mental-health/?mc_cid=62c35cb91c&mc_eid=4f0a06d045.
36 School Counselor Roles & Ratios - American School Counselor Association (ASCA). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.schoolcounselor.org/About-School-Counseling/School-Counselor-Roles-Ratios
37 State Shortages Data Dashboard. (2023). [Dataset]. National Association of School Psychologists. https://www.nasponline.org/about-school-psychology/state-shortages-data-dashboard
38 Durant, B. V., Gibbons, L. J., Poole, C., Suessmanm, M., & Wyckoff, L. (2011). NASN position statement: caseload assignments. NASN school nurse (Print), 26(1), 49–51. https://doi.org/10.1177/1942602X10391969
39 Lapan, R. T., Whitcomb, S. A., & Aleman, N. M. (2012). Connecticut Professional School Counselors: College and Career Counseling Services and Smaller Ratios Benefit Students. Professional School Counseling, 16(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2156759X0001600206; DuPont-Reyes, M. J., Villatoro, A. P., Phelan, J. C., Painter, K., Barkin, K., & Link, B. G. (2021). School Mental Health Curriculum Effects on Peer Violence Victimization and Perpetration: A Cluster-Randomized Trial. The Journal of school health, 91(1), 59–69. https://doi.org/10.1111/josh.12978
40 Lapan, R.T., Gysbers, N. C. & Kayson, M. (2006). The relationship between the implementation of the Missouri Comprehensive Guidance Program and student academic achievement. Columbia MO: University of Missouri.; Lapan, R. T., Gysbers, N. C., & Petroski, G. F. (2001). Helping Seventh Graders Be Safe and Successful: A Statewide Study of the Impact of Comprehensive Guidance and Counseling Programs. Journal of Counseling & Development, 79(3), 320. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2001.tb01977.x; Whiston, S. C., Wendi Lee Tai, Rahardja, D., & Eder, K. (2011). School Counseling Outcome: A Meta-Analytic Examination of Interventions. Journal of Counseling & Development, 89(1), 37–55. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6678.2011.tb00059.x