The East Penn School district administration has asked to hire a school resource officer (SRO) for Emmaus High School, at a total cost of approximately $100,000 annually. An SRO is a police officer who has additional training in working with juveniles and schools. I do not support hiring an SRO for the district right now, in part because the perceived need for one rests on a myth about public– and school– safety. Let me explain.
Newspapers, television and radio all offer us a constant drumbeat of threats to our safety. The news is often little more than a catalog of murders, assaults, robberies, and other crimes happening around us. Social media like Facebook and Twitter support this drumbeat by letting us all “share” stories of the dangers of the modern world. Those of us that closely follow the news can therefore be forgiven for believing– as half of all Americans do— that violent crime has increased over the last two decades.
But this is a myth. We are bombarded by news of crime because such stories sell papers, not because such incidents are on the rise. It simply isn’t true that crime and violence are increasing in our society. And much of the support for adding a police officer in the high school is predicated– often implicitly– on this false sense that our communities and schools are less safe today than when we were in school ourselves.
Let’s look at the reality. Nationally, violent crime has dropped dramatically over the last two decades. Today, we are less than half as likely to be a victim of violent crime than we were two decades ago. And this national trend holds locally too. Last night I pulled the crime statistics for just Lehigh County from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report System. What do they show? Last year crime was at its lowest level in at least a decade. (You can click on all the graphs below to see the underlying numbers; the lines on each graph are generated automatically to show the overall trends in the data).
The administration has argued that adding an SRO to the high school is “essential in creating a safe environment.” I disagree, because the data on crime nationally, the data on crime in our own county, the data on the safety of schools nationally, and the data on the safety of our own Emmaus High School all point to the opposite conclusion. Much of the impetus for adding a police officer is rooted in a pervasive myth that our community, and our schools, are becoming less safe. It simply isn’t true.
None of this suggests that violence and crime have disappeared from schools entirely. As parents and as community members, we want to make our children as safe as possible. Therefore, it is worth asking whether an SRO would improve safety even further. Tomorrow, I will address this question directly. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that SROs are not effective in making schools safer.
In addition to the many links above, I suggest the following if you are interested in learning more about crime and school safety:
- “Violence in Schools: How Big a Problem Is It?” by Scott Neuman (NPR, 3/16/12)
- “School Violence Myths” by the University of Virginia Curry School of Education
- The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, by Barry Glassner (Basic Books, 2010)
- “A Broader-Based Response to Shootings” by Chris Uggen (University of Minnesota, 12/18/12)