On June 2, Minneapolis Public Schools’ school board voted unanimously to end the district’s contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. Other districts, including Denver Public Schools, Portland Public Schools, and Oakland Unified School District have followed suit. These decisions represent one indication of a national reckoning with systemic racism ignited by police killings of Black Americans.
We have heard from our District Leadership Forum partners that district leaders must be prepared to discuss school policing with their school board and community. To help guide these conversations, here’s what district leadership should know about school policing, based on available research.
Evidence of School Resource Officers’ effectiveness is lacking
Approximately 46,000 School Resource Officers (SROs)—sworn police officers specializing in school policing—patrol 43% of public schools and 71% of public high schools in the United States.
Despite the widespread nature of SRO programs, a 2013 Congressional report notes that only limited research reliably evaluates their impact on school safety. Instead, most studies of SRO effectiveness measure self-reported outcomes, describe how SROs spend their time, and/or survey students’ perceptions of their safety. These studies cannot conclusively show whether SROs make schools safer.
Existing outcomes-focused research presents contradictory claims. For example, a 2009 study suggests students are less likely to commit assault or bring a gun to school if an SRO is stationed there, but a 2018 study found that investing in SROs does not impact student misbehavior.
SROs proliferated largely in reaction to school-based mass shootings. These shootings are traumatic and devasting—but statistically they are very rare, so researchers do not know conclusively how SROs can impact or prevent school shootings. Anecdotally, articles report instances where SROs stopped potential shooters and other instances where SROs failed to do so.
In light of the lack of evidence for SROs, a growing number of organizations—from the Justice Policy Institute to the Civil Liberties Law Review at Harvard University—argue that police in schools do not keep students safe. Troublingly, they also can make schools more dangerous for Black students.
The school discipline and juvenile justice systems fail Black students, and SROs can play a role
Race influences students’ experiences with school discipline and referrals to law enforcement.
The ACLU reports that Black students are twice as likely as white students to be reported to law enforcement, and four times as likely to be charged with “disturbing schools”—a highly subjective charge that the ACLU calls “unconstitutionally vague.”
And since evidence shows SROs excessively criminalize low-level offenses, racial justice advocates argue that school policing contributes to this trend. A recent study showing potential racial biases in school policing supports their argument.
To date, no research has investigated the potential impact of eliminating SROs on racial disparities in juvenile justice. However, data does show that the school policing status quo causes harm: A 2014 data snapshot from the U.S. Department of Education (DoED) shows that while Black students represent only 16% of school enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to school-related arrest. Additionally, students with disabilities represent 12% of school enrollment but 25% of students referred to law enforcement and 25% of students arrested.
Use your community’s context to guide decision-making
District leaders do not need to rely solely on national trends to make decisions about school policing. Asking smart questions can help administrators and school boards collect the district-specific evidence they need. Based on the guiding questions published in the Congressional report mentioned above, EAB recommends district leaders ask the following questions to guide resource allocation for SROs:
- Does the current level of school violence suggest schools would still be safe without SROs? Nationally, crime and violence in schools is rare and decreasing. Is this true at your district?
- Would school police funding be better spent elsewhere? Does your district invest insufficiently in evidence-backed approaches to behavior management? Are schools inadequately staffed with counselors, behavioral specialists, and special education instructors?
- Is your district employing SROs because of historical trends, anecdotes, or other inexact rationale? Do your current processes for capturing data fail to adequately measure school violence incidents and discipline referrals?
- Are SROs at your district impacting student groups unequally? Are Black students or students with disabilities disproportionately represented in referrals to law enforcement? Does survey data show that some student groups feel less safe than others in the presence of SROs?
If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes,” district leaders should reconsider their SRO programs.
Districts are re-allocating funds to strive for both safety and racial justice
Resist thinking that your district must choose either student safety or racial justice. School safety plans from across the country show that leading districts insist on both.
Leaders at these districts believe that counselors, special education instructors, mental health professionals, and evidence-based social-emotional learning and school discipline programs—like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Justice—can be equally or more effective at keeping schools safe.
For example, Oakland Unified School District’s school board voted to eliminate SROs and to instead invest the $2.5 million school police budget directly into students. Administrators and community members will create an alternative school safety plan by the end of the summer. They already have a template—The People’s Plan for Police Free-Schools from the Black Organization Project in Oakland. Under this plan, non-police security officers will still patrol schools, but their role will look very different than that of an SRO. The plan calls for:
- Moving the school safety and security program under Oakland Unified School District’s equity department or behavioral health department
- Restructuring the role and title of security personnel to emphasize peace-keeping, culture-keeping, and Restorative Justice
The conversations around school safety, police brutality, race, and inequality can be challenging. But with the right information, district leaders can make the decisions needed to ensure that district budgets accurately reflect community priorities.