As schools from Columbine High to Sandy Hook Elementary have been targeted by violence, administrators and public officials have increasingly allocated funds toward hiring more officers in an effort to make schools safer. This is, in part, responsible for the recent data that revealed more than 1.5 million students across the nation attend a school with a school resource officer (SRO) but without a school counselor.
In these schools, when an issue arises, ranging from a disagreement with a friend to physical altercations, students are referred to officers, rather than counselors.
These referrals have disproportionately impacted students of color. The data, published in a report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, found that black students are more than twice as likely to receive discipline through law enforcement, despite composing a significantly smaller proportion of overall students.
|Table 1. School Policing by the Numbers
|51% of high schools with high black and Latino student enrollment* have SROs.
|42% of high schools (grades 9-12, excluding justice facilities) have SROs.
|Black students are 2.3 times as likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest as white students
| Black students make up 15.5 percent of students
|*”High/low black and Latino enrollment” refers to schools with more than 75 percent and less than 25 percent black and Latino student enrollment, respectively.
Source: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights
Punitive discipline, referrals, and arrests are increasingly being accredited for contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, an issue that the American Bar Association deemed “one of our nation’s most formidable challenges.” Furthermore, this use of enforcement officers in place of counselors can have harrowing effects on students’ lives. Reports have shown that schools with SROs are also more likely to refer students to law enforcement and juvenile systems as a form of discipline than schools without these officials. For example, students were five times more likely to get arrested for disorderly conduct in schools with officers than without.
These troubling trends underlie a number of incidents involving SROs that have recently captured national attention. An officer handcuffed and arrested an 8-year-old black student with special needs after she had a tantrum in the classroom. In another incident that went viral, a SRO applied physical force to a 16-year-old black high school student who reportedly refused to hand over her phone during class.
Although stories and data continue to showcase the discriminatory practices of school resource officers, there has been a rise in the number of officers employed in schools in the past two decades. This can be attributed, in part, to the frequency of gun violence in American schools. Following a series of high-profile shootings in schools such as Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School, implementation and funding of SRO programs skyrocketed.
However, studies have not found a direct link between these officers and increased safeguards against gun violence in schools.
However, studies have not found a direct link between these officers and increased safeguards against gun violence in schools. A 2013 Congressional report examining sworn law enforcement officers asserted that “research does not address whether SRO programs deter school shootings, one of the key reasons for renewed congressional interest in these programs.”
As the nation turns to these officers in the hopes of increasing security, questions about their responsibilities, roles, and training have surfaced.
Who Are School Resource Officers?
School Resource Officers’ primary roles range from enforcing the law and other safety measures to assisting faculty and students resolve problems. However, their police-heavy training often results in their prioritization of safety measures over community-based intervention and education.
These school-based officers, otherwise referred to as sworn law enforcement officers (SLEOs), are licensed and permanently assigned to serve the school district or campus. When there, SROs are overseen by school staff rather than law enforcement agencies. There are also no national requirements for licensed officers to become SROs, which provides each state with jurisdiction to implement school officials’ training requirements as they see fit.
As a result, only twelve states require specialized training programs for school-based officers. These one-week programs, lead by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), suggest that officers complete forty hours of training before being placed in schools.
Just as SROs vary in their training, their responsibilities differ based on the needs of the communities in which they work. Officers have the prerogative to handcuff students, refer them to law enforcement, and apply force under their discretion.
What about School Counselors?
Now compare SROs to school counselors. Counselors have academic training to identify behavioral and social problems that students face, enabling them to target and prevent issues before they manifest both in and out of the classroom.
While research pertaining to the effects and efficacy of SROs has been disputed, there have been decades of literature highlighting the benefits school counselors provide to students. These range from closing the achievement gap, improving academic and behavioral outcomes, and reducing disparities in advanced classrooms. Noting these advantages, First Lady Michelle Obama has undertaken the Reach Higher Initiative to increase the hiring of school counselors.
However, the well of counselors in schools throughout the country is running dry. A report found that none of the ten largest school districts across the nation meet the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) recommendations of one counselor for every 250 students. In Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the nation, there is one school counselor for every 824 students.
The ratio of school counselors to law enforcement officers in schools also points to a deeper racial issue in the United States. As Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, maintains, “Over-policing and unequal access to school counselors in high-poverty schools is a symptom of the underlying problem of segregation in our education systems, which leads to low-income students and students of color having unequal opportunities across a variety of metrics.”
Reducing Discrimination through National, Standardized Oversight and Training for SROs
Reforming programs responsible for the implementation of SROs could ensure that schools with officers are fostering safe and non-discriminatory environments for their students and faculty.
Through legislation, a federal mandate could establish an independent body overseeing officers in schools. This body would be responsible for investigating reported incidents or wrongdoing of SROs. Local municipalities such as Chicago and states like Wisconsin have successfully taken steps in the past few years to establish similar independent bodies to monitor police-civilian issues. An independent body aimed toward SROs could provide unbiased judgment on their disciplinary measures and interactions with students.
The National Association of School Resource Officers could partner with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to create extensive guidelines for SROs that outline how to respond to specific events. A report released by the Obama administration detailing ways to deter school violence authorized funds to the DOJ to “develop a model for using school resource officers, including best practices on age-appropriate methods for working with students.” The financial resources of the DOJ combined with the expertise of NASRO on the everyday dealings of school-based officers could lead to better informed SROs.
Authorizing funds to establish a nationwide training program—that include education on biases and the negative effects of suspensions and referrals—could positively impact the relationships between SROs and students, especially those of color.
Federal legislation could mandate that officers receive formal training to become certified to work in school-based settings. Authorizing funds to establish a nationwide training program—that include education on biases and the negative effects of suspensions and referrals—could positively impact the relationships between SROs and students, especially those of color.
Increasing State Funding toward School Counselors and Training SROs
In any school, students’ interests are best served not only when there is safety and security, but also where there is the guidance and nurturance that is provided by school counselors.
The Every Student Succeeds Act has freed up federal funds for state legislators and community leaders in the form of block grants to invest in programs that ensure students have equal access to education opportunities.
This unique opportunity and reallocation of resources could be used to assure funding is made available for school counselors to be placed in schools that do not meet the ASCA standard. Closing the gap between the number of SROs and counselors could provide more community-based interventions to students at risk for behavioral issues, diminishing the need to rely on disciplinary measures once a transgression has occurred.