In response to national protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, several school districts across the country have ended their relationships with local police departments. The first major district response came from Minneapolis where the school board voted unanimously to cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. Other major school districts followed suit, including Denver Public Schools and Portland Public Schools, and several other districts across the country are currently considering separation. Although these examples are occurring at the district-level, state policymakers play a pivotal role in setting school safety policy.
The national spotlight, coupled with a growing body of research on how school resource officers (SROs) contribute to racial disparities in school discipline, have fueled district decisions and conversations thus far. In the 2017-18 school year, just under half of the nation’s schools had an SRO, including 65% of middle schools and 75% of high schools, while another 15% of schools have a law enforcement (non-SRO) presence. Some research shows that their presence results in increased rates of exclusionary discipline, which disproportionately impacts Black students, especially those in schools with zero-tolerance discipline policies. Exclusionary discipline not only negatively impacts student academic outcomes, it also increases the likelihood for involvement in the juvenile justice system and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Research also indicates that the presence of an SRO generally increases the number of crimes reported within a school setting, especially lower-level offenses such as disorderly conduct or vandalism. These increased arrests are not felt equally by all student groups: According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, in the 2015-16 school year, Black students represented 15% of the total student enrollment but represented 31% of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested. According to the Office of Civil Rights, studies have shown cases “where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students.”
The presence of SROs also erodes student perceptions of safety. According to this study, Black students typically felt less safe in the presence of school resource officers. Forthcoming research indicates that SROs may perceive students differently depending on the diversity of the student body. SROs in a school with a larger percentage of Black students are more likely to view the students as a threat.
As school districts begin to disband from police departments and reform SRO roles, they are tasked with finding alternatives to improve school safety. Potential approaches for addressing SRO policy include:
- Hiring SROs from outside of police departments.
- Increasing training standards for SROs.
- Exploring new school safety measures.
- Clearly articulating the role of the SRO in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between school districts and local police departments.
Although state-level policies on SROs vary, state policymakers play an important role in setting school safety policy. For example, in statute or regulation, 15 states and the District of Columbia include statewide certification requirements for SROs, and 28 states and the District of Columbia require training for SROs. Such training requirements vary, too. Several states require firearm or active shooter training, but fewer require training in de-escalation techniques or conflict resolution, mental health and youth development, or school climate. Only Maryland and Utah explicitly include provisions for training in “implicit bias and disability and diversity awareness with specific attention to racial and ethnic disparities” and in “cultural awareness,” respectively.
In a similar vein, some states direct schools or districts to enter an MoU with local law enforcement if they provide an SRO. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio and South Carolina all require these MoUs to outline the role of the SRO in school discipline matters and to set clear expectations for their involvement. Additionally, the Massachusetts Attorney General and Ohio School Resource Officers Association developed model MoUs for their states that include provisions specific to the authority of the SRO to make arrests and play a role in disciplinary matters.
While training and certification requirements may be established outside of statute or regulation (in state department of education guidebooks, local board or districts policies or MoUs), state policymakers may seek to formalize and standardize such requirements at the state level. For more information on school safety and state policy options, consult our Key Issue page on school and campus safety.