I was a (casual) hunter when I was a kid, and I started when I was ten or eleven, hunting rabbits and squirrels with my father. One fall day during 5th grade school recess, I discovered that I had forgotten to take a small box of .22 caliber bullets from my jacket pocket after a day in the woods the previous weekend. My elementary-school mind thought I might impress some of my fellow students with the box, so I showed it to a few of my friends on the playground. One or more of them, rightly, let a teacher know and I was quickly brought to the principal’s office and made to understand the depth of my mistake. I never did anything like that again.
As I’ve learned more about SRO programs in the schools, I’ve often wondered how different reactions today might be compared to the (effective) reaction my principal had 30+ years ago. Would I have been suspended from school? Arrested? Charged with “making terroristic threats”? Quite frankly, I don’t know.
Previously, I wrote about the lack of evidence SROs improve school safety. Unfortunately, there is evidence they can actually be harmful. Having a police officer constantly in a school can have the effect of criminalizing student behavior, as it makes it more likely that offenses previously handled by school officials– particularly those that are not serious– become matters for the criminal justice system. My own childhood experience many years ago might, today, be one such example.
An important study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice finds that such concerns are warranted. The research examined several dozen schools over a three year period, approximately half with SROs and the other half without them. Here is what the results show:
“[T]he high number of disorderly conduct incidences at SRO schools compared to non-SRO schools was consistent with the belief that SROs contribute to criminalizing student behavior. Having an SRO at school significantly increased the rate of arrests for this charge by over 100 percent even when controlling for school poverty. Given that disorderly conduct was the most common charge in this study, these results have serious implications for schools, law enforcement agencies, and juvenile courts.” (p.285)
And if I haven’t lost you yet in all the data, let me report on much more hand-on, qualitative research. University of Delaware criminologist Aaron Kupchik closely studied four schools in different places around the U.S.. He interviewed teachers, staff and students in the schools, and then spent months in each one, logging hundreds of hours trailing administrators, talking with students, and observing what happened in the hallways, cafeterias, parking lots, and classrooms. He found the SROs in the schools to be both approachable and professional. And teachers, staff and students all generally liked and respected them. Despite this, he also observed the criminalization of student behavior in action in his research, leading him to conclude “for all but the most violent areas, it is a bad idea to keep police in schools. The potential harms to students are serious and widespread.”
This last study raises an important point: The potential problems with SROs do not stem simply from bad officers, or poor training. SRO programs may harm student wellbeing even in cases where school administrators have good rules for involving SROs and the SROs themselves are well-meaning and well-trained. The root of the problem is this: SROs contribute, often unwittingly, to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that is being driven, in no small part, by growing inequality and poverty in our schools (over half of all public school kids now live in poverty; over 20% in Emmaus High School). What this means is that even good SRO programs can cause problems.
Beyond these harms to students, there are other potential risks too. Even if students all behave, there can be things to worry about. The presence of SROs can undermine the authority of administrators, thus having the paradoxical effect of lowering discipline in a school rather than raising it. The issue of legal liability for the actions of SROs in schools is another concern. This issue became more important to me after reading about the SRO who accidentally fired his gun inside a high school near Scranton. Luckily nobody was killed in the incident. But it underscores the fact that consideration of an SRO for our own high school should include not only whether we need such a position and whether such a position would be effective, but also the range of potential dangers that might come too.
I haven’t been hunting in years now, but my childhood experience with playground boasting about a handful of bullets makes me mindful today that our approach to school safety can have unanticipated consequences. What the data show is that these unanticipated consequences are real and should be a part of the conversation.