SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER: SOME CONSIDERATIONS FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE DEBATE
Given the recent events involving school shootings in Florida and Maryland, much debate and conversation continue around the pros and cons of having School Resource Officers (SRO) in schools. For several years now, schools have engaged in the use of School Resource Officers (SROs) as part of their security arrangements to assure safety in schools.Proponents of this practice view that SROs offer schools an additional measure of safety, improved culture and climate with regards to responding and preventing school-based crimes, enhancing and fostering a positive relationship among the youth, educators, and law enforcement. However, opponents of this view assert that the system is discriminating and SROs introduce students to the criminal justice system prematurely. For students and teachers to maximize and achieve their full potential, their school environment should be safe, secure and protected. We can most likely agree that students who feel protected, safe and secure in school can perform highly, are more engaged in class, record lower incidences of behavioral problems, truancy, and absenteeism. Also, the school staff and administration benefit from safe schools because they can focus further on academics, have more time to support and teach students. In other words, having a positive culture and school climate can be connected to supporting better educational outcomes for students.
Discussion: Both Sides of the Debate
The presence of SROs in a school may offer immense benefits to the school staff, administration and students. Studies have revealed that SROs act as an educator in the school establishment (Bernard, Canady & Nease, 2012). The SROs' knowledge in law enforcement and backed with experience furnishes them with the unmatched specialized expertise that can be particularly relevant in an educational setting. SROs can use this knowledge in the school in a variety of ways with the purpose of helping parents, staff, school administration, and community to stay safe and protected. Bernard et al. (2012) mention that SROs often use their knowledge and experience acquired in training to educate students on staying safe in school and the value of good behaviors. In many schools, SROs take the role of a guest speaker, lecturer, and teacher in the classroom. In this context, they often assist the teachers in fulfilling evidence-based curricula such as the Second Step, Bullying Prevention Program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) (Petrosino, Guckenburg, and Fronious, 2012). They also educate students on unlawful inquiries, substance abuse, youth-centered offenses including dating as violence, laws and constitutional rights, conflict resolution and restorative justice as well as law enforcement as a profession (Petrosino et al., 2012). Likewise, SROs assist students with mathematics using such activities as accident reconstruction studies. SROs role in educating students in the classroom can create and strengthen a positive culture among the youth and law enforcement.
SROs are also considered valuable in aiding school counselors by proponents. According to Rosiak (2011), SROs serve as informal counselors in schools. The counseling aspect is a pivotal role because the informal sessions they implement creates a positive bond between the officers and the students. Teske (2011) reveal that students often turn to SROs comparable to how they have turned to their parents or other adults in their lives. Students seek the help of SROs to discuss significant issues that might be affecting them. In this way, SROs help foster trust and nurture a connection with the students through informal and formal synergies. For example, Rosiak (2011) provides a Boston Public School’s Program as an example of how informal and formal interaction is essential.
In the Boston program, SROs have arranged sessions where they meet with ‘at risk’ students each Saturday morning. In the meeting, SROs' reviews with the student their behavior and also help the student gain awareness of matters related to the criminal justice system. It is essential to note that when students are offered direction on challenging matters including stressful life conditions, underage drinking, and sometimes illegal school escapades, they sometimes start to trust the SRO for assistance. The relationship that develops ultimately aids the SRO in recognizing students who are at risk in advance and affords them the opportunity to offer appropriate intervention or guidance. Similarly, the SROs involvement with the student may allow him/her to intercede before the issue gets out of hand. He/she can also direct a student to a relevant support group or divert the students from the juvenile justice system (Petrosino et al., 2012).
Supporters state another potential benefit of having an SRO in a school is increased safety. Teske (2011) reveals that SRO’s are necessary for protecting staff and students from threats of violence. The presence of an SRO in a school setting decreases the response time for help during an emergency or when an incident of violence occurs in school. Similarly, the fact that an SRO is familiar with the school environment, and the information of persons involved in the problem, he/she can enhance the performance regarding reacting to the incident.
Despite the immense benefits offered by champions of having SRO’s in the school environment, opponents view that SROs have become the push for the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ According to Rosiak (2011), the trained SRO is thought to improve positive relations between the students, parents and the staff. However, sometimes this may not be the case. In fact, some feel the deployment of SROs in school is an inefficient intervention in restraining school violence. In other words, community advocates have often shared that SROs are helping schools introduce students to the criminal justice system, promoting the school to prison pipeline. The severe level of discipline given to students because of misbehavior in the school or classroom is cited as evidence of the school to prison pipeline. Opponents cite such actions as but are not limited to increased arrest, criminal charges, escalation of restraint measures resulting in violent conflict to name a few.
Recent studies discovered that SROs have contributed to more students receiving criminal charges for minor behaviors categorized as 'disorderly' conduct. While a significant role of the SRO is to protect the school and make it safe, a report released in 2009 provided unexpected findings (Lind, 2015). The report indicated that court documents on student arrests from a school with an SRO officer compared with a school without SRO revealed different findings (Lind, 2015). The report noted there was the insignificant difference in serious crime committed between the schools with an SRO and schools that did not have an SRO. However, the report noted that the schools with SROs as being more prone to have their students arrested than the schools that did not have an SRO.
Also, the report showed that schools with an SRO were much more likely be arrested but not any more likely to be arraigned in court for assault, alcohol, drugs or weapons. Lind (2015) illustrates that SROs' should deal with significant issues of criminal nature than minor issues in the school system.
The report also indicates the distribution of SRO’s is skewed and has a result; may have perpetuated discrimination among students and schools. Lind (2015) shows that the distribution of SRO’s is biased and that the more nonwhite students the school have, the more likely the school will have a full-time SRO. Most schools with needy students appear to have the presence of SRO on a daily basis.
These are schools where the majority of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. However, most affluent schools employ security guards to keep their schools safe and protect their student’s possessions.
In conclusion, with the rise in large and high profile shootings across schools in the United States, and the escalating concern about school violence, proponents believe the role of SROs is increasingly essential. Schools should enhance safety, and the role of SROs cannot be taken for granted. Opponents want schools to be safe and orderly while not creating a "school to prison pipeline." The outstanding question might be what the best research-based practice that provides a place of comfort for all - proponents and opponents? NASRO states the following as part of it’s frequently asked questions, “the goals of well-founded SRO programs include providing safe learning environments in our nation’s schools, providing valuable resources to school staff members, fostering positive relationships with youth, developing strategies to resolve problems affecting youth and protecting all students so that they can reach their fullest potentials. NASRO considers it a best practice to use a “triad concept” to define the three main roles of school resource officers: educator (i.e., guest lecturer), informal counselor/mentor, and law enforcement officer.” (NASRO.org 2017)
It is critical for school leaders and law enforcement to have distinguished the difference between administrative functions and necessary police action. Principals and staff cannot be allowed to abdicate their roles instead of police action thus creating an environment where childish student behaviors and poor decisions become criminalized. In August 2015, NASRO released a position statement regarding best practices for school policing in response to a recent event involving a school resource officer (SRO) allegedly using physical restraints on a special needs child and other incidents with the involvement of SROs in school disciplinary situations. The recommendations included but not limited to the following:
1) A Clear and Concise Memorandum of Understanding is Essential – signed by the heads of both the law enforcement agency and the educational institution.
2) Require that all school resource officers (SROs) be carefully selected law enforcement officers who have received specialized SRO training in the use of police powers and authority in a school environment.
3) Clearly define the roles of the SRO to include those of: a) Law enforcement officer, b) Teacher, and c) Informal counselor
4) Prohibit SROs from becoming involved in formal school discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators. (NASRO.org 2017)
Whenever possible and appropriate, educators and SROs should partner to find ways to create teachable moments and learning opportunities, inclusive of such things as empathy, reinforcement of citizenship and restorative acts.
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Lind, D. (2015, Oct 28). Why Having Police In Schools Is A Problem, In 3 Charts - Vox, Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/10/28/9626820/police-school-resource-officers (accessed March 20, 2018).
Petrosino, A., Guckenburg, S., & Fronious, T. (2012). Policing Schools” Strategies: A Review of the Evaluation Evidence. Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Evaluation, 23, 80-101.
Rosiak, J. (2011). Sustaining the SRO Position in Tough Financial Times, School Safety. National Association of School Resource Officers, 8-11.
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