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. To me there are three main questions that should be answered in order to form an educated opinion about this request:
- Why now? In an environment of extreme budget pressure and the prospect of a significant tax increase just to ‘tread water’ in the district, what is the pressing problem that spending an additional $100,000 a year will address?
- Will it work? The goal, which we all share, is greater school safety and security. Will an SRO deliver on this?
- What are the downsides? There is the financial cost to taxpayers, of course. But does this proposed solution bring with it new potential problems we should be aware of?
Over this past week, I’ve written three different pieces in which I share what I learned myself in trying to answer each of these three questions. I did my best to find all of the research and data available on SROs, and evaluate this research both in terms of its quality and its relevance to the particular conditions we have here in our district. I outline the answers I discovered in the following posts:
What I learned in a nutshell: Contrary to what we might assume by watching the news, our schools are very safe. Indeed, they are MORE safe today than they were ten and even twenty years ago. At Emmaus High School, the number of serious behavioral incidents are not going up; if anything, they are declining. At the same time, the (limited) data we have on the effectiveness of SROs shows that they can increase the PERCEPTION of safety, but do not increase the REAL safety of schools. So while we may all want to make our schools even safer than they are, an SRO is unlikely to do that. And finally, the research shows that SROs have the effect of criminalizing student behavior that is best handled by school officials rather than the police. Moreover, SROs can both undermine the authority of other school officials and expose the district to greater legal liability. All of this is true even if SROs are highly trained, well-intentioned, and carefully supervised. The Emmaus Police Department, Macungie Police Department and the State Police all do an excellent job already keeping our schools safe.
The district administration has put a great deal of careful thought, time and effort into the SRO proposal. I appreciate the work they have done in developing it, and acknowledge the important experience many on the district’s leadership team have had with SROs in other districts. They have also reviewed many reports and studies, but have– in my judgment– relied on those that are of lower quality (relying on perceptions rather than objective data, for example) or that speak to less central questions (for example, the best way to develop an SRO contract) in advocating for the new position.
My daughter will attend Emmaus High School next year. And so there is naturally a part of me that says YES– put a police officer in every hallway! But I am committed to making evidence-based decisions for our district, and that kind of gut reaction doesn’t make for good public policy. Conditions in the district could change, or new research could emerge about the benefits of an SRO, that would lead me to reconsider. But right now, based on the evidence, I do not support hiring one for East Penn.