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Criminal offending, victimization, and disciplinary problems at school have been a great concern in the USA, and millions of dollars are being spent on improving school safety. Unsafe school conditions can have detrimental effects on students’ academic and behavioral outcomes either directly or indirectly by influencing the nature of social relationships within schools and school climate. Not surprisingly, public concerns about school crime and violence have led to a variety of responses to increase the safety of schools, which include the use of security and surveillance practices. One of the strategies gaining popularity to enhance school safety is having uniformed police officers stationed on the school grounds. In the past 12 years, the rising concerns about high-profile school violence and shootings led to a dramatic increase in the use of school resource officers (SROs), and the number of schools with full-time SROs still continues to grow rapidly, especially in large, urban, and secondary schools.
While most key stakeholders (especially school administrators and SROs) believe that the presence of SROs increases school safety, such positive impressions are often not corroborated when more objective measures of school safety are used to assess the effectiveness of SRO programs. Both quantitative and qualitative research suggests that increased use of SROs might lead to the over-criminalization of disciplinary problems and increased reliance on harsh discipline and exclusionary practices to deal with problematic students. The presence of SROs might also disproportionately affect specific segments of population (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, special education students).
This research paper begins with a discussion of the recent trend towards increasing reliance on SROs and the reasons why SROs are being used extensively in schools within the context of larger historical, structural, and political shifts. This is followed by a discussion of the possible reasons for and consequences of increased use of police in schools, including both anticipated and unexpected effects. Then extant research on the effectiveness of SRO programs is summarized. This research paper ends with a discussion of implications for future research and policy.
The SRO Concept And Trends
The concept of SRO first emerged during the 1950s in Flint, Michigan, as part of the implementation of community policing (Girouard 2001). The concept grew during the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in Florida, although it did not spread nationally until the mid-1990s, when legislation such as the Safe Schools Act of 1994 and a 1998 amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 encouraged partnerships between schools and law enforcement. The US Department of Justice “COPS in Schools” grant program dramatically increased the use of SROs in schools beginning in 1999. SROs are typically uniformed, armed officers who have been trained for their role as school-based officers. Their duties typically involve patrolling the school, investigating criminal complaints, handling student rule/law violators, and trying to minimize disruptions. They are also often involved with educational and prevention-related programming, such as counseling students and providing DARE instruction. Although the specific goals of SRO programs may vary across time and space, the federal “COPS in Schools” program has two primary objectives: to “encourage working relationships between police and schools, thus bringing the principles and philosophy of community policing directly into the school environment” and to “assist communities in focusing leadership and resources on the issues related to creating and maintaining a safe school environment” (Girouard 2001).
According to the most recent School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the percentage of students aged 12–18 who reported the presence of security guards and/or assigned police officers at their schools was 69 % in 2007 (Dinkes et al. 2009). A recent New York Times article (January 4, 2009) reported that more than 17,000 police officers are now placed in the nation’s schools.
The use of police in schools has not always been so high. In 1975, principals in only 1 % of the nation’s schools reported police stationed in the school (National Institute of Education 1978). Non-city schools and elementary schools almost never had police stationed in them. Only between 10 and 20 % of senior high schools had police. The School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSCS) data shows that by the 2003–2004 school year, principals in 36 % of schools reported police stationed in the school and by 2007–2008, the percentage had risen to 40 %. Other data sources concur. Data collected from a nationally representative sample of local police departments (from the Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics [LEMAS] survey) show the number of SROs placed in public schools grew from 9,400 in 1997 to 14,337 in 2003 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000, 2006) and the percentage of students aged 12–18 who reported the presence of security guards or assigned police officers at their schools increased from 54 % in 1999 to 69 % in 2007, according to the NCVS.
Reasons For The Increase
Why is the use of police in schools increasing in the USA? The simplest answer is that the federal government has been increasing funding for police in schools. The Department of Justice Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) initiated the “COPS in Schools” (CIS) grant program in 1999, just after the highly publicized shootings at Columbine High School. As of July, 2005, COPS has awarded in excess of $753 million to more than 3,000 grantees to hire more than 6,500 SROs through the CIS program and more than $10 million to hire approximately 100 SROs through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program. In 2004 the CIS program provided an additional $1.5 million in federal funding for SROs in conjunction with the Office of Justice Program’s Gang Reduction Project. States often subsidize federal funding to hire additional SROs and provide funding to support school security, sometimes requiring that schools employ SROs to qualify for certain state money
The increased funding for police in schools was a highly visible response to increasing rates of juvenile crime throughout the 1980s and the numerous school shootings that occurred during the 1990s, culminating in the Columbine event. Between 1984 and 1994, the homicide rate for adolescents doubled and nonfatal victimizations increased nearly 20 % (Elliott et al. 1998). Rates of victimization at school were also high during this period, with 56 % of juvenile victimizations occurring at school in 1991 (Elliott et al. 1998). These realities created an urgency to do something about the problem. But why police in schools? Hirschfield (2008) places this response in larger historical, structural, and political context, tracing the origins of the trend towards “criminalization of school discipline.” The placement of police in schools is but one element of a larger shift towards more formal treatment of student discipline. Legal reforms have mandated that certain offenses (such as drug and weapon possession) be referred to the police when they occur on school property. Other reforms have increased surveillance by using a variety of security technologies including metal detectors and security cameras and have broadened the conditions under which student searches are conducted.
This trend, according to Hirschfield (2008), was in part a delayed response to the student rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in several judicial rulings limiting the discretion of school personnel to exclude students from school for disciplinary reasons. Teacher unions and associations and the national school principals associations, seeking to limit their constituents’ liability for disciplinary actions, strongly supported more defined roles for teachers and principals with respect to school discipline responses in general and zero tolerance policies in particular. With increasing youth violence and highly publicized school shootings, the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 requiring that schools adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to weapons in schools became politically feasible. Many schools extended zero tolerance policies to apply also to the use of drugs and alcohol. As of 1998, 91 % of school principals reported that their schools automatically or usually (after a hearing) expelled or suspended students for possession of a gun, drugs, alcohol, or a knife (Gottfredson and Gottfredson 2001). This shift away from school personnel discretion and towards formalization of school responses to school discipline sets the stage for the more widespread use of police in schools that would soon follow.
Consequences Of Increased Police Presence
Increasing police presence in schools may have made sense as a reaction to increasing rates of youth violence and school shootings, but these events cannot explain why police continue to be stationed in school buildings today. Since 1993, schools have enjoyed a strong downward trend in crime of all types that mimics the downward trend in overall youth victimization. Based on the NCVS data, Cook et al. (2010) report that the victimization rates of youths aged 12–18 at and away from schools continued to decline between 1992 and 2005. For theft and violence, the 2005 figures were about one-third of the peak in 1993. Yet the use of police in schools continued to rise as school crime rates declined.
In all likelihood, schools continue to use SROs because these officers are widely regarded as effective for maintaining school safety. Proponents believe that SROs contribute to school safety not only through their surveillance and enforcement functions but also because they create bonds of trust with students, who are then more likely to report potential crimes to them (McDevitt and Panniello 2005). SROs might also contribute to improved relations between youth and police. Of course, the presence of police in schools also provides readily available first responders in the case of real emergencies, and they help school administrators determine if certain behaviors constitute law violations.
Others share a less optimistic view of the consequences of keeping police in schools. The cost of adding SROs to schools is high, not only in personnel costs but also in extra costs related to formal processing of misbehaviors that would otherwise be handled in the school. Some research suggests that students attending schools with SROs are more likely to be arrested, especially for minor offenses such as disciplinary infractions (Theriot 2009). This becomes more problematic considering the “invisible” costs and consequences that such over-criminalization might produce (e.g., negative impact on the youths while they are held in adult detention centers before cases are dismissed or when they are actually processed through juvenile courts and labeled as criminals). In addition, one of the most troubling consequences is that SROs can shape the school discipline climate in ways that could potentially harm students. The findings from qualitative analysis of SRO effectiveness (e.g., Kupchik 2010) suggest that increased use of police officers facilitates the formal processing of minor offenses and harsh response to minor disciplinary situations. That is, school principals tend to rely on the officer as a legal adviser when there is an uncertainty about the relevant rules of law to apply. Police officers are more likely to resort to legal definitions and formal processing, especially when they have an obligation to take legal action under the zero tolerance policies. To the extent that minor behavioral problems are redefined as criminal problems and teachers are expected to rely on police in dealing with disciplinary problems, discipline responsibilities tend to be shifted away from teachers, administrators, and other school staffs to the SROs.
There are also civil liberties issues to be considered. A recent inquiry about civil rights violations related to the use of SROs highlighted another potential downside of the program. As reported in the New York Times (January 4, 2009), an A.C.L.U. inquiry into school-based arrests in Hartford, Connecticut, found that the presence of SROs disproportionately affected minority youths. This accords with a larger body of research showing that the use of suspension, especially long-term suspension, has a disproportionate impact on minority and special education populations, whose behavior places them more at risk for suspension. Civil liberties advocates have long argued that zero tolerance policies rob youths of their right to a public education. Unfortunately, these possible negative and positive consequences of increasing police presence in schools still remain untested by rigorous studies.
Research On SROs
To assess the effect of placing SRO officers in schools on the level of school safety, it is necessary to compare a reliable and objective measure of school safety pertaining to a period during which SROs worked in the schools to a suitable measure representing the counterfactual condition – for example, no SRO officers. The counterfactual measurement might be based on a reliable estimate of the outcomes taken from comparable schools with no SRO or from a time period before placement of the SRO. In either case, the number of observations of both the treatment and control conditions must be sufficient to generate stable estimates for each condition, and the outcome measurement must not be influenced by the placement of the officers in the school as it would be, for example, if the officers’ own incident reports were used.
No evaluation of SROs to date meets this standard. National assessments of SRO programs supported by the National Institute of Justice (e.g., Travis and Coon 2005; Finn and McDevitt 2005) focus exclusively on the roles played by SROs, factors related to these roles, and how the SRO programs have been implemented. When they discuss the program effects, they either present descriptive statistics or simply rely on perceptions of campus safety as outcomes. Several other evaluations of SRO programs have also asked key stakeholders such as SROs or school administrators to report on their perceptions of the effectiveness of the SRO programs for increasing school safety. Not surprisingly, almost all (99 %) SROs report that their presence has increased school safety (Trump 2001) and most school administrators also report generally positive impressions of the SRO programs (e.g., May et al. 2004). However, it is well known that positive impressions of the effectiveness of an intervention are often not corroborated with more objective measures.
Other studies rely on surveys of students in schools with SROs to assess the likelihood of reporting crimes to the SRO officer, perceptions of safety, opinions about the SRO officer, and frequency of interactions with SRO officers (e.g., McDevitt and Panniello 2005). While providing useful information about youth impressions of SRO officers, these studies do little to inform us about program effectiveness because they cannot compare the experiences of students exposed to SROs with those of students not exposed. For example, McDevitt and Panniello (2005) report that students feel comfortable reporting crimes to SROs and that they feel safe at school. The important question, though, is whether students in schools with SROs feel safer than students in schools without SROs and whether they are more likely to report crimes to an adult in schools with SROs than in schools without SROs.
The first published evaluation of an SRO program to go beyond stakeholder impressions (Johnson 1999) also used cross-sectional self-report data collected from SROs, program administrators, and school principals in five schools in Birmingham, Alabama, all of which had SRO officers. But the evaluation also included a comparison of suspension counts from the year before the SROs were placed in the cities’ schools until the semester after they were placed for all 18 schools that received SROs. Although the evaluation concluded that the placement of SROs into the schools was effective for reducing suspensions, the lack of a non-SRO comparison group, the reliance on a single time point of pretreatment data for schools with SROs, and the use of suspensions counts rather than rates meant that the study was not sufficiently rigorous to enable confident conclusions to be drawn regarding the effectiveness of SRO programs on youth behavior.
Subsequent evaluations have also failed to meet the standard necessary for drawing causal conclusions about program effectiveness. Only three studies have compared SRO schools with non-SRO schools. One (Theriot 2009) found that the presence of SROs increased rates of arrest for disorderly conduct but decreased rates of arrest for more serious assault and weapons charges. Another (Gottfredson et al. 2002) reported no effects of SRO presence on students’ beliefs about the acceptability of offending or on their perceptions of the police, but students in the SRO schools were less likely than controls to report that they would be identified if they were to participate in delinquent activities. The contributions of these studies are limited because they were based on small numbers of nonrepresentative schools and nonrepresentative samples of students within the schools (Gottfredson et al. 2002), lacked comparable non-SRO schools or a sufficiently long pretreatment assessment period (Jackson 2002; Theriot 2009), or lacked measures of actual student behaviors or perceptions of school safety (Jackson 2002). Also, Theriot (2009) compared the SRO condition with non-SRO schools that employed law enforcement officers who are not trained in school-based policing but focus exclusively on law enforcement functions, making the results less interesting for our purposes.
The most recent study of SROs (Na and Gottfredson, forthcoming) used a nationally representative sample of US public schools to compare schools that added SROs or other sworn law enforcement officer to schools that did not. They examined the extent to which the addition of police in schools is associated with changes in levels of school crime and schools’ responses to crime. They presented both cross-sectional comparisons and comparisons based on a longitudinal sample that allowed for more complete controls for preexisting differences among schools than were available in previous research. Outcomes included principal reports of the number of school crimes, the percentage of those school crimes that were reported to the police, and the percentage of offenses for which the offending student was removed, transferred, or suspended.
Unlike studies that have reported on key stakeholders’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the SRO programs for increasing school safety, this study found no evidence suggesting that SRO or other sworn law enforcement officers contribute to school safety. That is, for no crime type was an increase in the presence of police significantly related to decreased crime rates. The preponderance of evidence suggested that, to the contrary, more crimes involving weapons possession and drugs are recorded in schools that add police officers than in similar schools that do not. The analyses also showed that as schools increase their use of police officers, the percentage of crimes involving nonserious violent offenses that are reported to law enforcement increases. These findings are consistent with the conclusions from a previous qualitative research (Kupchik 2010, p. 115) which found that the presence of police officers helps to redefine disciplinary situations as criminal justice problems rather than social, psychological, or academic problems and accordingly increases the likelihood that students are arrested at school. Adding police, however, does not increase the reporting of serious violent crimes or crimes involving weapons and drugs to law enforcement, probably because the rates of reporting of these crimes to law enforcement are already very high.
Contrary to speculations that the presence of SRO officers may unjustly rob students of their right to a public education through increased use of suspension and expulsion or may contribute to civil rights violations by disproportionately impacting minority or special education youth, Na and Gottfredson (forthcoming) found that students in schools that add police officers are no more likely to be removed, transferred, or suspended from school as a result of an offense than are students in schools that do not.
The findings from the studies discussed here need to be interpreted carefully due to their weak design and inherent limitations. The most important limitations in the extant research are that (1) the measurement of school crime may be influenced by the placement of a police officer in the school, (2) the research designs used in the studies have been incapable of ruling out selection artifacts as an alternative explanation for observed associations, and (3) the mechanisms through which SROs might influence school crime and safety have not been studied.
A substantial number of violent and nonviolent crimes committed within schools are never reported. Having SROs stationed at schools would tend to increase arrest rates simply by increasing surveillance and detection of crime even when the number of crimes remains the same or is reduced. Similarly, the number of crimes reported by the principal may reflect the actual level of crime in the school, the accuracy of the recording of school crime, or both. To the extent that police officers increase the accuracy of reporting in the school in which they are stationed or to the extent that police officers redefine ambiguous situations to conform to legal definitions of law violations, the observed increase in recorded school crime due to police officer presence observed in some of the studies may reflect a change in measurement practices rather than an increase in actual crime. Future studies of the effects of police officer presence on school crime should use crime measures that cannot be influenced by changes in official recording, such as student self-reports of victimization and offending in school.
The second major limitation of the existing evaluation studies is that most are based on the cross-sectional data that makes it difficult to determine the true causal directionality of the associations observed. To the extent that SROs are placed in the most troubled schools (as was demonstrated in Na and Gottfredson, forthcoming), a positive association will be observed between the presence of SROs and crime. Longitudinal data is needed to control for preexisting school conditions. Even using longitudinal data, available pretreatment measures may fail to adequately control for preexisting differences between schools with and without police officers. Future evaluations of the effects of placing police in schools should randomly assign schools to have police officers stationed therein or not.
Finally, no studies have examined the mechanisms through which SRO presence might increase or decrease school safety and crime outcomes. As noted by Girouard (2001), SROs are expected to serve a multifaceted role (e.g., law enforcement officer, counselor, educator). Through such a variety of duties, SROs can have a substantial impact not only on school safety itself but also on school environment in general, which in turn affect school safety (Cook et al. 2010). Scholars have hypothesized about the effects that the presence of police officers may have on the social climate of the school. While some evidence suggests that police contribute to a more positive school climate by encouraging student trust, other evidence suggests that increased law enforcement presence in schools erodes the school’s sense of community, diminishes students’ willingness to confide in school staff, and creates confusion about the roles of school administrators and the police in resolving disciplinary incidents. These social climate outcomes should be measured in future SRO research.
Implications For Policy
Any intervention strategy that adds new personnel to a system is bound to be very costly. Programs that station police in schools is no exception. In the USA, federal and local tax dollars pay these costs. In addition to the apparent costs of the program are hidden costs related to large increases in the formal processing of youthful offending in the schools in which police are placed. Note that the studies discussed in this research paper suggest that students involved in less serious crime are more likely to be either formally arrested or reported to law enforcement in schools in which police are stationed.
Like many social programs that are motivated by a sense of urgency to do something about a perceived crisis situation, SRO programs have grown dramatically without benefit of scientific evaluation. As noted earlier, compared to 1975 when only 1 % of the nation’s schools had police stationed in them, as of the 2007–2008 school year, 40 % of schools had police stationed in them. No rigorous study to date has demonstrated that placing police in schools promotes school safety. To the contrary, scholars have suggested that increased police presence may have the unintended effect of increasing school crime via school climate changes described earlier.
The bottom line is that more rigorous research on this topic is absolutely essential. The possibility that placement of law enforcement officers in schools increases referrals to law enforcement for crimes of a less serious nature and results in systematic construal of ambiguous situations as law violating behavior requires us to assess more carefully the school climate and school safety outcomes related to this popular and costly practice. Needed are studies involving enough schools to provide sufficient statistical power to detect important differences on the outcomes of interest, using a research design that can effectively rule out selection effects and using objective measures that are not likely to be influenced by the presence of police in the schools. It would also be desirable if the studies had sufficient statistical power to detect differences by type of school or community in the effectiveness of SRO programs. Hirschfield (2008), for example, provides a rationale for anticipating that the functions of SROs will differ in suburban and urban schools. The effectiveness of SRO programs may also differ depending on the perceived level of crime in the school and community.
In the meantime, a more cautious approach to maintaining order in schools would be to rely on approaches that have been demonstrated in research to reduce school crime. There is no shortage of such evidence-based practices. Several narrative reviews and meta-analyses of school-based interventions aimed at reducing conduct problems and delinquent behavior have been published in the last 10 years (e.g., Gottfredson et al. 2002; Hahn et al. 2007; Wilson and Lipsey 2007). All of these sources identify numerous school-based programs and practices that have been demonstrated in high-quality research to enhance school safety. Many of these effective practices are also known to be cost-effective (Drake et al. 2009). Until the effectiveness of the practice of placing police officers in schools can be demonstrated, schools are encouraged to make more extensive use of these effective practices.
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