New research finds that police deployed in schools, commonly called school resource officers (SROs), do not reduce school shootings, but do increase suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of students.
A working paper published last week by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University and written by researchers at the University at Albany, SUNY and RAND Corporation bills itself as the broadest and most rigorous examination at the school-level of how SROs impact student outcomes. Using national school-level data from 2014 to 2018 collected by the U.S. Department of Education, the paper found that while SROs “do effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools,” they do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.
“We also find that SROs intensify the use of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students,” researchers wrote. “These effects are consistently over two times larger for Black students than White students.”
The study found that the introduction of SROs to schools did appear to improve general safety and decrease non-gun-related violence, like fights and physical assaults. However, the authors say, those benefits come at the cost of increasing both school discipline and police referrals.
The study further found that SROs increase chronic absenteeism, especially for students with disabilities.
During the nationwide debate over policing last year, school districts across the country began reconsidering the use of SROs, and several major cities—Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Charlottesville, and Portland, Oregon—ended their SRO programs in public schools. Other jurisdictions significantly cut their budgets for school policing.
The number of police in schools has skyrocketed in schools over the past four decades, first in response to drugs, then mass shootings. Police departments and organizations like the National Association of School Resource Officers argue that well-trained SROs act as liaisons between the school and police department. A good SRO, they argue, can actually reduce arrests.
Civil liberties groups and disability advocates, on the other hand, have long argued that increases in school police and zero-tolerance policies for petty disturbances have fueled the “school-to-prison” pipeline and led to disproportionate enforcement against minorities and students with disabilities.
Other recent research has come to similar conclusions as the new working paper. For example, a study published last August by researchers at the University of Maryland and the firm Westat found that increasing the number of police in schools doesn’t make school safer and leads to harsher discipline for infractions. The study found that increasing the number of SROs led to both immediate and persistent increases in the number of drug and weapon offenses and the number of exclusionary disciplinary actions against students.
After Florida mandated that all K-12 schools have at least one SRO or armed guardian following the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a study found that the number of school arrests—which had been declining for years—suddenly started to rise. There was also a sharp increase in the use of physical restraint against students.
As Reason reported last June, Florida civil liberties groups and disability advocates warned that the hiring surge was leading to a disturbing number of arrests of children. The research appeared to confirm at least some of their concerns. The study found that the presence of SROs “predicted greater numbers of behavioral incidents being reported to law enforcement, particularly for less severe infractions and among middle schoolers.”
While overall youth arrests in the state declined by 12 percent, the number of youth arrests at school increased 8 percent. Florida police arrested elementary-aged children 345 times during the 2018–2019 school year, the study reported. It also found four times as many incidents of physical restraint in 2018–2019 as there were in the previous year.
Florida has also been the site of several recent viral videos of small children being arrested. Last year, body camera footage emerged showing officers in Key West, Florida, trying and failing to handcuff an 8-year-old boy, whose wrists were too small for the cuffs. An Orlando SRO made headlines last September when he arrested a 6-year-old girl.
Such viral incidents have sparked national outrage and calls for SRO programs to be curtailed. Chicago activists who want to defund the school system’s police program have cited a 2019 video in which Chicago police officers kick, punch, and taser a 16-year-old girl. The Justice Department’s 2017 report on civil liberties abuses by the Chicago Police Department included findings that officers beat and tasered teenagers in school for non-criminal conduct and minor violations.
Just yesterday, Hawaii News Now reported on a 10-year-old girl who was handcuffed and arrested for drawing an offensive picture that upset another student’s parent.
Earlier this year, the city of Rochester, New York, released body camera footage of officers pepper spraying a handcuffed 9-year-old girl.
A North Carolina mother filed a civil rights lawsuit last October against a policeman who handcuffed and held her autistic 7-year-old son prone on the ground for nearly 40 minutes.
The list could go on and on: a school resource officer at a high school in Camden, Arkansas, was relieved of duty after video showed him putting a student in a chokehold and lifting the student off the ground. A North Carolina SRO was fired after he brutally body-slammed a middle-schooler. A Broward County sheriff’s deputy in Florida was arrested and charged with child abuse after a video showed him body-slamming a 15-year-old girl at a special needs school.
In response to incidents like these, legislators in states around the country have been introducing legislation to raise the minimum age at which children can be arrested.
The authors of the new working paper say that school districts should weigh the benefits of safer hallways against the high cost of putting more kids in contact with the criminal justice system.
“The results of this study present a difficult set of tradeoffs,” researchers conclude. “Although our study does not perform a cost-benefit analysis, we encourage districts to consider these effects of SROs in comparison to other potential investments to prevent violence in schools, including restorative practices.”
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