School resource officer
The United States Department of Justice defines School resource officers (SRO) as “sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.” SROs are typically employed by a local police or sheriff's agency and work closely with administrators in an effort to create a safer environment for both students and staff. The responsibilities of SROs are similar to regular police officers in that they have the ability to make arrests, respond to calls for service, and document incidents. School resource officers typically have additional duties, including mentoring and conducting presentations on youth-related issues. SROs are not synonymous with school based law enforcement (SBLE) officers - which are typically employed by a school district's law enforcement agency, rather than local or city law enforcement - though they are often used interchangeably.
This article is primarily about SROs in the United States, though there are also SROs in Canada. In Australia, they are called Police School Liaison Officers and only exist at High School level.
- 1 History
- 2 Purpose
- 3 Outcomes
- 4 Law and policy
- 5 Controversies
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The first documented SRO was placed in a school in Flint, Michigan in 1953. School. However, the topic was not broadly discussed until 1968, when the Fresno, California Police Department looked to the school resource officer program as a tool to “revitalize its image in the eyes of its youth”. This early adaptation of the program involved placing plainclothes officers in the middle and elementary schools to foster a relationship between the local police department and the youth, which continues to be a goal of the program. Since the 1970s, the role of SROs has shifted from mentorship/education to crime prevention and law enforcement. In the 1980s-90s, SROs facilitated crime prevention programs, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) and Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). From the mid-1970s to 2008, the number of schools with police stationed on campus rose from approximately 1 percent to 40 percent." In many states SROs are the main enforcers and interpreters of the states' school disturbance laws.
Although Fresno’s program began with non-uniformed officers, it has progressed into what is seen in most communities today: a uniformed officer operating a marked police vehicle, who is responsible for safety and security on the school property. This came after the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 passed by Congress in response to the country’s fear of juvenile and gang violence. As a result, schools created expansive “zero tolerance” policies that were enforced by an increasing presence of uniformed SROs on campus. In the late 1990s, SRO presence on campuses again increased after the Department of Justice created a $750 million grant program, Cops in School, to hire over 6,500 SROs.
Like the United States, many secondary schools in Canada have hired security personnel to enhance the safety of staff and students. School systems, such as in Toronto, have engaged armed police officers to be in the school throughout the day. In 2008, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), in collaboration with the Toronto Police Service, institutionalized the SRO Program by permanently placing armed, uniformed police officers in secondary schools. However, in November 2017 the TDSB voted to eliminate the district's SRO program.
Different governments, school districts, and professional agencies have varied descriptions for the purpose of SROs. The National Association for School Resource Officers details the SRO's role as threefold: 1) as an educator, 2) as an informal counselor or mentor and 3) as a law enforcement officer. The United States Department of Justice includes those three prongs, and adds 4) an emergency manager or planner for a school or district. Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Technology in Education aggregated SROs’ job descriptions across the country and identified seven comprehensive purposes for an SRO, including 1) provide law enforcement and investigation, 2) develop crime prevention programs, 3) training and securing school personnel, 4) establish a working relationship with school and students, 5) develop classes related to position, 6) assist students in conflict resolution, and 7) be a positive role model.
In addition, SROs’ are managed by different institutions depending on their location. At school, most SROs are treated as staff and report to the principal or other school administrators. When not at school, they are often managed by a law enforcement agency.
Crime prevention is as a major component of being an SRO. However, critics suggest that putting more efforts into creating a safe environment through school related programs would be equally or even more effective in reducing crime. Between 2003 and 2007 there was an 8.9 percent decrease in the number of SROs in the United States but no increase in the number of reported offenses.
It is also believed that incidents in schools with SROs are under reported because school administrators or teachers will often simply contact the SRO when assistance is needed, reducing the number of calls received by 911 call centers.
The Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) rubrics were created through a partnership of the United States Department of Education and Department of Justice. SECURe provides plans for initiating or improving SRO/law enforcement relationships with schools.
SECURe identifies five action items for schools and law enforcement agencies to collaborate:
- “Create sustainable partnerships and formalize Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) among school districts, local law enforcement agencies, juvenile justice entities, and civil rights and community stakeholders.
- Ensure that MOUs meet constitutional and statutory civil rights requirements.
- Recruit and hire effective SROs and school personnel.
- Keep SROs and school personnel well trained.
- Continually evaluate SROs and school personnel, and recognize good performance.”
In the 2015-16 school year, the following percentages of schools reported having one or more SROs at their school at least once per week:
- 77% of schools with 1000 or more students
- 47% of schools with 500-999 students
- 36% of schools with 300-499 students
- 24% of schools with fewer than 300 students
Overall, 42% of public schools host an SRO and an additional 10.9% host a sworn law enforcement officer, as of 2016. In towns (defined as a territory within an urban cluster) have the highest concentration of SROs as 57% of schools in towns host at least one SRO. This is compared to 45% of suburban schools and 36% of city schools. Almost a third of public schools that host an SRO are more than 80% black, while less than 42% of the schools that host an SRO are majority white.
Juvenile crime reduction
It is difficult to tell if the presence of SROs is having an impact on the prevalence of crime in schools and communities, likely because it is difficult to show a causal relationship between the presence of law enforcement and crime rates. For example, in a 2018 study that compared Kentucky high schools that hosted an SRO to Kentucky high schools that did not, there was no statistically significant relationship between reported criminal violation rates and the presence of an SRO. However, a 2013 study that analyzed data across the United States found that schools that increase their use of police see an increase in reported crime. This conclusion aligns more closely with intuition because one of the stated goals of SROs is to develop better relationships between students, staff, and police officers which could mean that students and staff would be more comfortable reporting criminal activity to an officer.
A 2012 report from the National Association of School Resource Officers sites national statistics that show a general decrease in juvenile crime and the violent-crime index since the early 2000s, when SROs became especially prominent in schools. They support this claim with a 2009 study that finds that “when the results were controlled for economic disadvantage, the presence of an SRO led to a 52.3% decrease in the arrest rate for assaults and a 72.9% decrease in arrests involving possession of a weapon on school property.” While this is true, having an SRO in the school also significantly increases the arrest rate for disorderly conduct, even when controlling for school poverty, a more subjective charge that relies considerably on the discretion of the arresting officer, as opposed to something like an assault or weapons charge that it much more objective. This result lends itself to the idea that the presence of an SRO may increase the criminalization of behaviors that could have been addressed in other ways. Further, the decrease in arrests for assault and weapon possession could be from a result of students avoiding the SROs and taking these activities off campus, not necessarily the result of them failing to commit these crimes at all. In another article, James Swift also refers to the report prepared by the Justice Policy Institute. His writing further indicates that the presence of school resource officers does not lead to a reduction in crime.
This is a similar problem with associating the presence of SROs with the decline in crime rates, overall. There are too many contributing factors to the occurrence of crime to draw a causal relationship between the presence of law enforcement and the crime rate.
Teaching and mentorship
A 2017 study combined crime data from the U.S. Department of Education and interviews with 20 SROs to better understand how officers are spending their time between teaching, mentorship, and law enforcement. Overall, the study finds that while 75% of SROs perform law enforcement functions, only about half of SROs perform teaching or mentorship functions. The performance of these functions were also different based on the racial make-up and socio-economic status of the students at the schools. For example, at schools with students of lower socio-economic statuses, while SROs engaged in more mentorship than at schools with wealthier students, they also were more involved in school discipline and implemented more laws than at wealthier schools. The findings also indicated that SROs perform more law enforcement functions as the percentage of white students increase.
It is important to note that this information comes from a single study, so more research is needed to draw significant conclusions on SRO teaching and mentorship.
A 2011 report from the Justice Policy Institute considered the cost of SROs as compared to other full time employees at secondary schools. An SRO is paid at the rate of a police detective, which in 2011 was paid an average of $63,294 per year. This salary was more than both the average teacher’s salary and average school counselor’s salary in 2011. Opponents of SROs often cite this as a reason to not employ an SRO, as it may strain an already tight school budget. However, in some cases, law enforcement agencies have been known to split the cost of employing an SRO with the district. There are also grant opportunities available through the Community Oriented Policing Solutions office under the Department of Justice. Those grants made their first major impact in 2000 when the grants provided money to employee almost 600 School resource officers in 289 different communities.
Law and policy
Memorandums of Understanding
Because SROs are responsible for a number of tasks outside of normal duties for law enforcement officials, it has become common practice to establish a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the school district and the local law enforcement agency. These MOUs tend to vary in content based on the needs of the school district, but common ideas include the specified mission of the SRO, the organizational structure, and goals and procedures for the SRO. Other MOUs are more specific and include day-to-day duties of the SRO, where the SRO would be located in the school building, how an SRO will be selected, who is responsible for training, and chain-of-command issues. The National Association of School Resource Officers provides a helpful guideline and questions that should be reflected in an MOU to ensure the safety of students and to guard against legal action that could be taken against the law enforcement agency and/or the school.
MOUs often fall short[according to whom?] in clearly defining the school’s role and the SRO’s role in student discipline and maintaining a safe environment. As a result, an SRO may find himself/herself making decisions in the moment that disrupt the balance between student safety and students’ rights. Kimberly Small, Assistant General Counsel for the Illinois Association of School Boards, recommends specifying policies, in line with applicable laws, on issues of “search and seizure, questioning of students, and requests for student records.”
While the federal government does not have specific laws regarding the use of SROs, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice created the Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) rubrics to help provide guidance to school districts.
Students can, however, file civil rights claims against School Resource Officers. Kerrin Wolf, an Assistant Professor of Law at Stockton University, reviewed a series of Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the federal civil rights of students while in school. In her paper, she explores the ways in which students’ rights are limited in three dimensions while in school: rights against search and seizure, interrogation rights, and free speech rights.
- Search and Seizure: New Jersey v. T.L.O. loosened probable cause requirements for school officials in two ways: it required less evidence to justify a search and a school official can suspect a student of breaking a law or a school policy, which covers significantly more actions than just breaking a law. Vernonia School District v. Acton and Board of Education of Pottowatamie School District v. Earls further expanded schools’ ability to search students by allowing for random drug testing for all students involved in extracurricular activities. However, Safford Unified School District#1 v. Redding placed some restrictions on schools by identifying strip searches as too intrusive. Courts remain divided regarding the question of whether school resource officers need probable cause or reasonable suspicion to conduct a search of a student on school grounds because they are agents of a law enforcement agency, not school officials.
- Interrogation: In State v. Barrett, the Louisiana court found that a Miranda warning was not required by a school official to question a student. As far as how this requirement extends to SROs, In the matter of V.P found that Miranda warnings are not required in an investigation involving an SRO if a school administrator performs the questioning. In re Marquita M. took it a step further by claiming that holding a student in a school office for questioning does not qualify as “in custody” (and, therefore, requires a Miranda warning) because it is not a threatening environment, like a police station, where coercion could occur.
- Free Speech: In Tinker v. Des Moines Community Independent School District, the court upheld two students’ right to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Since that case, however, free speech for students in schools has been diminished. In subsequent cases, courts have allowed schools to limit speech that they consider to be disruptive or counter to the pedagogical mission of the school.
Only eight U.S. states currently have laws on the books regarding School Resource Officers and/or police in schools. Generally, these laws only cover the definition of an SRO and mandate training. However, in November 2016, New Jersey signed into law Bill S86, which allows schools to hire retired law enforcement officers as SROs under the condition that they receive no benefits, can work full-time hours, are no older than age 65, and retired within three years of application to the SRO program.
There have also been a number of incidents in the United States in which school resource officers and/or police officers called into schools are reported to have used excessive force against students. Some of those incidents include:
- In May 2017, an in-school police officer with the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) allegedly handcuffed and tasered a 7-year-old special needs student and, in that same week, another in-school officer at another Dallas ISD reportedly body-slammed and pepper sprayed a 12-year-old female student.
- In October 2015, a police officer was filmed body-slamming a 16-year-old girl at her desk in Spring Valley High School in South Carolina.
- Also in October 2015, two police officers were called into Round Rock High School in Texas to break up a fight between students. Students filmed one of the officers choking one of the 14-year-old students involved in the fight.
- A school resource officer for Tolman High School in Rhode Island fell under investigation in 2015 for body-slamming a 14-year-old student, leading to massive protests the following day over the SRO's behavior.
- In August 2015, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against a Kentucky school for allowing a school resource officer to handcuff an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, both of whom had special needs.
These incidents are among many that have caused significant concern over the ability of schools to control the actions of school resource officers and other police officers when they are asked to intervene in student conflicts. SRO's are not governed by the school board. They are controlled by the laws of the state in which they work and their agencies policies and procedures. When the law is broken by a perpetrator and there is a victim of a crime, charges must be brought. It is not the choice of school staff whether a law enforcement officer can act in filing charges.
Increasing arrests of juveniles
Student Resource Officers are becoming more commonplace in American and Canadian schools, leading to increasing concerns that their presence in secondary schools could prematurely expose adolescents to the Criminal Justice System. School districts across the United States are implementing criminal justice system practices in order to achieve a safe schooling environment; however, this comes at the cost of exposing youth/adolescents to the criminal justice system and tarnishing their educational achievements for situations that in the past would likely have been handled through disciplinary action within the school. This is seen by some[Like whom?] as contributing to the school to prison pipeline.
A criticism of school resource officer programs pertains to the rate of juvenile arrests. In a 2011 article by Amanda Petteruti issued by the Justice Policy Institute, information is presented that indicates that school referrals to the juvenile justice system have increased with the presence of SROs. A high percentage of those referrals were for minor offenses that may have been handled by the administration had an SRO not been present. This concern has attracted attention and some studies indicate that the use of the Juvenile Justice System for minor offenses aids in a phenomenon known as the "School to Prison Pipeline" (pg. 13).
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggests that SRO programs should be designed to provide a different response for disciplinary matters as opposed to criminal offenses that occur on school grounds. This recommendation was intended to ensure that juveniles were not receiving disparate treatment based upon the presence of a law enforcement officer within their school.
The February 14, 2018 shooting which killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School brought renewed attention to the topic of police in schools. The police officer assigned to the school resigned shortly after the shooting under criticism of not entering the school building while the student was shooting. Given the frequency with which school shootings occur in the United States, critics of SRO programs are asking if it is necessary to have armed police officers in schools, if they cannot ensure students' safety during crises.
The shooter in Maryland's Great Mills High School attack on March 20, 2018, was neutralized following swift action by the school's resource officer, Blaine Gaskill. As CNN put it: "Gaskill's response was hailed as an example of exactly what a resource officer is supposed to do in such a circumstance, particularly when contrasted to the actions of the security officer in last month's shooting in Parkland, Florida."
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