School Resource Officers: A Holistic Approach to the Problem

By: Shannon Pascal

An ABA Joint Task Force recently identified School Resource Officers (“SROs”) as one of the causes of the school-to-prison pipeline.  It claimed that SROs: 1) create a hostile environment in schools which alienates students; 2) arrest students for harmless crimes like disorderly conduct; and 3) take the role of disciplinarian away from educators.  The Joint Task Force argued that, in combination with implicit bias, the presence of SROs at schools results in the disproportionate punishment and attendant educational disruption of students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students.  As a result, students from those groups are academically disadvantaged, and more likely to suffer from poverty and other troubles later in life.

Among the possible solutions to the negative effects of SROs on students considered by the Joint Task Force were specialized training programs for SROs and guidelines dictating which student violations warrant SRO intervention.  However, the Joint Task Force points out that part of the problem with the presence of SROs may be the attitude students have towards law enforcement personnel.  It stated that, “strict security measures . . . can harm the educational climate by alienating students and generating mistrust . . . lead[ing] to even more disorder and violence.”[1]  Therefore, any solution to the negative effect of SROs should address students’ attitudes towards SROs.

Addressing student attitudes is easier said than done.  SROs play multiple roles in schools.  They are law enforcement officers as well as mentors and educators.   One of the problems with the way student view SROs is that they often have a hard time seeing SROs as anything but law enforcement officers.  This difficulty prevents students from approaching and interacting with SROs in those more positive roles.

However, even in their law enforcement capacity, SROs can still fall short.  According to a recent study by Theriot and Orme, there was no difference in students’ feelings of safety in schools with an SRO and those without one.  The researchers believe that this might be due to the fact that roughly 75% of student did not or rarely interacted with their school’s SRO, and many students did not even know what their SRO did at the school.  Theriot and Orme also suggest that school culture may play a role in how student view SROs.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a troubling phenomenon.  As the Joint Task Force states, there are no easy solutions.  Preventing the negative effects SROs have on students is no exception, and we must look not just at the function SROs play in schools, but also towards finding ways of changing how students view their SRO.

Sources:

Sarah E. Redfield & Jason P. Nance, The American Bar Association Joint Task Force on Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline Preliminary Report, American Bar Association Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, Criminal Justice Section, and Council for Racial & Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline (2016).

Matthew T. Theriot & John G. Orme, School Resource Officers and Students’ Feelings of Safety at School, 14 ʏᴏᴜᴛʜ ᴠɪᴏʟᴇɴᴄᴇ & ᴊᴜᴠ. ᴊᴜsᴛ. 130 (2016).

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