The Debate Over School Resource Officers

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Photo by Robert StolarikOpinions about the use of school resource officers (SROs) in public schools appear to fall along the same contentious fault lines as the national discourse on gun control. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last December — when 26 people, among them, 20 children, were gunned down — vocal proponents and opponents of SROs have become equally galvanized in an impassioned public debate.

The first SRO program in the nation began in 1953, with resource officer employment increasing throughout the mid 1990s. Currently, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) estimates that about 10,000 SROs are employed in the nation’s public schools.

The effectiveness of SRO programs is disputed. A 2009 “Journal of Criminal Justice” report found that schools employing SROs had half the number of assault-related arrests as schools not using resource officers, while a 2012 American Civil Liberties Union study asserts that schools with on-site officers generally have higher rates of student arrests than schools without SROs. 

Kevin Quinn and Spike Bradford are two men with diametric views on the issue. As president of NASRO, Quinn believes the roles of SROs are often misunderstood, with the media frequently discounting their benefits. Bradford, senior research associate at the Justice Policy Institute, disagrees, stating that SROs compromise school security and increase the likelihood of students’ arrests for trivial offenses. 

The argument for 

“Your school resource officers are not just hired guns, or hired security to stand inside schools or stand at the front door waiting for something bad to happen,” Quinn said. As fully-sworn law enforcement officials, Quinn — a law-enforcement veteran of 17 years — said SROs are employed “to become engrained in a school community,” no differently than staff or faculty members. In addition to serving security functions, Quinn asserts that SROs can be utilized for both educational and counseling purposes.

“We go into classes, [and] we teach law-related education,” he said. SROs can provide information to students on drugs and alcohol prevention, and they frequently counsel teachers and other stakeholders on mandatory reporting laws, Quinn added. 

Having SROs on campus, Quinn believes, allows young people to become more familiar with and comfortable around police officers. 

The most apparent advantage of employing SROs, Quinn said, is their presence in the case of an emergency. 

“One of the biggest benefits of having an actual SRO on campus [is] that you’re an immediate first responder on the campus,” he said. Having an SRO in a school, he said, may eliminate several minutes of response time in a crisis. 

However, Quinn does not believe that SROs are “replacements” for security personnel. “If a school already has security guards, your school resource officer is there to assist the existing security measures,” he said. “We’re not there to replace [them].”

Non-criminal policies, like hallway monitoring, conduct violations and dress-code enforcements, are still matters that remain in the domain of school personnel, Quinn said. “The SROs, being law enforcement, do not take care of school policy,” he said. 

“We’re not just there to make sure the next bad incident, the next school shooting, doesn’t take place,” Quinn continued. SROs are intended to serve a “greater good,” to make schools safer places for students and staff. 

The argument against 

Bradford, conversely, does not view SROs as effective school investments.

“I haven’t seen any research that shows that a school resource officer makes it less safe in a school,” he said. “But there’s also no research that clearly shows that it makes a school more safe.” 

The negative consequences of employing SROs, Bradford asserts, “far outweigh” the potential benefits schools may receive.

“Too often, they end up with sort of this mission creep, where they arrest kids for behavior that, otherwise, just would have been taken care of by the school,” Bradford said.

Having SROs in schools, he said, contributes to the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” which disproportionately affects minority students. Bradford cites a 2011 Justice Policy Institute (JPI) report, which found that some schools employing SROs had total arrest rates approximately three times higher than schools without resource officers present. 

“That’s the job, generally, of an officer,” he added. “To arrest people.”

Bradford is particularly concerned by the rate of disorderly conduct arrests, which the JPI asserts could be five times higher in schools employing SROs. Due to loose interpretation of what “disorderly conduct” means, some students have been arrested for offenses such as using profanity and arguing with teachers. 

Many schools, he added, do not have clearly written guidelines about what roles officers are expected to perform, and thus the effects of SRO presence could be potentially harmful. 

“When you send your kid to a public school, the school is obliged to provide a safe environment, and putting a police officer in there with a weapon isn’t necessarily making it more safe,” he said.

“It makes students feel policed,” he concluded, “which is not necessarily the best mindset to have when you’re trying to learn.”

Weighing the costs

Pricing for SROs, Quinn said, fluctuates from community to community. As full-time police officers, Quinn said that SRO salaries are determined by how much other officers within the jurisdiction are paid. 

“An SRO in San Diego may cost more than an SRO in, maybe, a small town in Alabama,” he said. 

Since 2000, the Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) In Schools program has contributed nearly $1 billion to hire SROs and implement other school security programs. With funding dropping by 90 percent over the last decade, however, more schools districts find themselves paying for SRO programs at their own expense. 

Factoring in costs like salary, insurance and additional overhead, Bradford said implementing SRO programs in schools can be very expensive.

“One resource officer can cost around $100,000 for a school,” he said. “And traditionally, schools don’t run surpluses.”

A common ground?

While Quinn and Bradford have different takes on SROs, one area where they agree is the prospect of arming non-police personnel in schools. 

“Our … organization does not support the arming of [non-police] school staff on campus,” Quinn said. “We believe that the only armed person on campus should be a sworn police officer; ideally, they need to be trained as a school resource officer.”

NASRO recognizes that there are smaller school districts and jurisdictions that support such measures, but Quinn doesn’t feel as if such policies are in the “best interests” of those schools.

“It’s not a position that we’re condoning,” he stated. 

Bradford said arming teachers and administrators is a “horrible idea.” 

“The level of training that is needed in an active shooter environment to be effective, to be safe, is so high that most normal policemen do not meet that,” he said. “To give a principal or a vice principal a gun in school isn’t really going to meet the requirements of something like Sandy Hook.”

The idea serves up far too many logistical problems, he continued. “Are they going to keep [firearms] locked up, and what good is that in an emergency situation?”

Schools, Bradford concluded, are simply “no place for guns.”

“To start putting guns in schools as a reaction to a very few bad cases doesn’t change, statistically, the fact that schools are still very safe,” he said.