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 data shows that hiring an SRO does not achieve the goal of greater safety.
The strongest arguments in favor of an SRO is that it makes a school safer. An SRO can be proactive, and thus might be able to deal with discipline issues before they get out of hand; they might serve as a deterrent to criminal activity on schools grounds; and they might help educate or even mentor students in ways that keep them out of trouble. The logic certainly makes sense, and I believe the administration is sincere in its belief that an SRO can help in these ways.
The trouble is the research on the effectiveness of SROs in schools simply does not bear out these benefits.
Research Results: There is “no evidence suggesting that SRO or other sworn law-enforcement officers contribute to school safety.”
An internet search will certainly turn up reports claiming SROs in schools are effective, thus contradicting this research finding. But if you actually read such reports, you find that “effective” is defined in such claims merely as “popular, as measured by opinion surveys.” This pattern led the U.S. Department of Justice report to conclude in 2010, and the Congressional Research Service to repeat in 2013, that “studies that report positive results from SRO programs rely on participants’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the program rather than on objective evidence.”
Pennsylvania Report: There are “no notable differences” in either violence and weapons incidents, or in truancy rates, between PA schools that hired SROs and comparable schools that did not.
To summarize: Existing research shows that SROs in schools increase the perception of safety, but do not increase the actual safety of schools. There is certainly lots of room for additional research on this topic. I did an exhaustive search for high quality studies and was frankly surprised how little had been done, given the importance of these programs and the level of taxpayer funding they now command. More research is needed, but the best available data to date suggests that hiring an SRO officer will not increase safety at Emmaus High School.
None of this data suggests that local and state police departments aren’t important to school safety. In our own district, police departments have good working relationships with district officials and assist the schools when there are problems. I hope that continues! What the data does show is that schools themselves should not get into the policing business.
I acknowledge that the lack of conclusive research means reasonable people may disagree on this issue. And I respect that many people have had good experiences with SROs and good reasons for wanting one for the district. The issue of school safety is very personal to me too; my daughter will attend the high school next year. I therefore can’t help thinking about SROs not just as a school board member, but as a father. But the desire to keep our kids safe shouldn’t blind us to facts, and the best research-based evidence we have right now makes it difficult to justify hiring an SRO. The data show that such a hire will not accomplish the goal we all share: making schools safer.
Tomorrow’s post: While objective data suggests SROs do not make schools safer, there is some evidence that they can cause a number of harms, even when officers are highly trained and excellent at their jobs. I will address this issue in my post tomorrow.