School Resource Officers: First, Do No Harm

Today’s guest author is Teresa Olafson. Teresa has been blessed with two amazing sons that have raised her to be a fierce advocate when she would have enjoyed simply being “mom”. She is currently concluding her master’s in nursing administration and management and hopes to expand her learning on the neurobiology of trauma. Newer to advocacy, she is passionate about empowering families and creating positive impact on educational, health care and political systems through shared knowledge.


Background: The School Resource Officer (SRO) role was introduced by a public-school system in Flint, Michigan, during the 1950s. Yet, ever since, a progression of, “mission creep”, has been noted to the original goals or intent of this position (Ryan et al, 2018). What was once a consistent role of ensuring a safe school environment may now be, factually, a main contributor to the growing disparity of both school discipline and justice practices against specific populations of students of ethnicity, gender and disability status (ACLU, 2019). Recent U.S. Presidential administrations have supported the role of SROs in public school via fiduciary, which means with an escalation of federal funds to engage in a stronger SRO presence in public school after such tragic incidents of Columbine and Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (Fisher and Hennessy, 2016 and Ryan et al, 2018). This has made school-based policing the fastest growing branch of law enforcement per the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) and puts SROs into nearly half of our nation’s public schools (Ryan et al, 2018). From ACLU’s 2019 Cops and No Counselors; How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students report:

  • 1.7 million students are in schools with police officers but no counselors 
  • 3 million students are in schools with police officers but no nurses 
  • 6 million students are in schools with police officers but no school psychologists 
  • 10 million students are in schools with police officers but no social workers 

During President Obama’s administration, the focus was to place SROs into public schools as a mechanism of creating school safety by addressing the physical safety of students from outside harm or threats. In conjunction, there was also the enforcement and preservation of disparate groups’ civil rights to ensure balance (ACLU, 2019). However, the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has begun to remove or resist enforcement of these protections for public school students which has prompted many legal actions against her and the Department of Education (ACLU, 2019). Increasingly, there has emerged a concern regarding the entanglement of policing power with that of internal school-disciplinary procedures in addressing the developmental or disability-related behaviors displayed by the student body that SROs are entrusted to oversee (Fisher & Hennessy, 2016). Without national standardization, it defaults to states to establish rules or local educational agencies (LEAs) to develop and adhere to memorandums of understandings (MOU) with SROs to ensure clarity to the role and responsibility of the SRO position; including student behavior (Ryan et al, 2018). There is no national standard that establishes SRO qualifications or training and only a few states have set their own (Ryan et al, 2018).

Only 24% of all states mandate law-enforcement training to establish a working knowledge of juvenile justice and most state police academies spend less than 1% of their training time on juvenile justice topics and issues.

Ryan et al, 2018

Challenges: School encompasses a greater context than that of simply learning. It is the environment in which most accomplished developmental tasks that a child attains, or not, which affects their future lifetime achievements in all arenas of life (Fisher & Hennessy, 2016). U.S. public education is challenged to meet the rapidly rising mental health needs of depression, anxiety, and trauma displayed by our students in school, which demands school-based mental health (SBMH) providers in our schools in a far greater capacity than SROs (ACLU, 2019). It is vital to recognize that students are, “…21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers for mental health needs”, versus going to a community source (ACLU, 2019). It may be inferred that a student’s first positive engagement for mental/behavioral health services is often achieved within the nurturing school environment.

From ACLU’s 2019, Cops and No Counselors; How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students report:

  • Suicide rates for children aged 10-17 have increased 70% from 2006 to 2016 
  • School shootings create direct and indirect adverse childhood experience (ACE) 
  • Approximately 35 million children have been exposed to an event that could lead to childhood trauma.
  • Mental health episodes typically experienced in adolescence are most effectively treated in     adolescence 
  • 1 in 5 youth is affected by a mental health issue that will lead to a diagnosis 
  • 1 in 10 youth will require additional mental health support in the school setting 
  • Mental health concerns directly affect academic achievements and contribute up to nearly 50% of school-dropout rates 

A survey by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) notes that 41% of public school teachers report student behaviors disrupt their ability to teach, which is comparable to the 43% of public school teachers that report that they lack adequate student behavioral-management training (Ryan et al, 2018). U.S. public schools are struggling to support the mental and behavioral health needs of students, leading to an over reliance on policing student behaviors. Struggling teachers have better access to coordinate with or seek intervention by an SRO than a school based mental health provider when addressing concerning student issues (ACLU, 2019). Being asked to manage student behaviors without adequate role definition or mandated professional training that includes child development, disability training, or effective communication, creates the unfortunate criminality-focused approach that SROs unilaterally employ to gain control (Ryan et al, 2018). The etiology of school behaviors certainly has many contributing factors but most notedly is that millions of students are underserved or unable to access essential school-based resources as readily as a SRO (ACLU, 2019).

U.S. Department of Justice unit, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), is a federally-funded program that gained an additional $45 million in funding after Sandy Hook (ACLU, 2019). After the Parkland shooting, $1 billion was granted to states to infuse into their security budgets with a line majority noted to SRO programs (ACLU, 2019). Public school budget constrictions typically do not extend to the “health and safety” or SRO component of budget planning. It is key to note having school-based mental health (SBMH) providers create positive outcomes for the school, community, and students alike.

From ACLU’s 2019, Cops and No Counselors; How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students, reports schools that incorporate school-based mental health (SBMH) providers note:

  • Improve school climate
  • Increase positive health outcomes
  • Improve school safety
  • Improve academic achievement scores and career preparedness.
  • Improve student attendance rates 
  • Lower rates of suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary interventions 
  • Improve graduation rates

SROs, Implicit Bias and Impact on Disparity Students: It is imperative that as we reform or reshape the role, conduct, responsibility and accountability of our police enforcement agencies there is attention to the role of SROs or any subsection of school policing. Putting police into the public schools can be equated to an action based on fear and in response to desegregation (ACLU, 2019). In 2011, a U.S. Justice Policy Institute report reflected that schools with SROs had five times more disorderly conduct arrests than schools without (Ryan et al, 2018).

NEA Today identifies that in 2010, over a quarter of a million students were referred for legal consequences by SROs for incidences that typically would have been addressed and resolved by school administrative practices in previous years.

Ryan et al, 2018

Suspended students are at higher risk of continuing encounters with the juvenile justice system and are captured in the poor school-performance outcomes (Fisher & Hennessy, 2016). Negative student achievements are not limited to the offending student but also affect their peers, leading the U.S. Department of Education to encourage public schools to limit the harsh application of Zero Tolerance discipline policies and practices in 2014 (Fisher & Hennessy, 2016).

Public schools’ use of SROs in addressing student behaviors has surged in recent years which has led to the reliance on SROs as the main component of school discipline and harsh consequences for developmentally or disability-appropriate student behaviors (Fisher & Hennessy, 2016). Simple “horseplay” by a black boy becomes “disorderly conduct” or an Autistic sensory meltdown becomes “assault”, in which both come with legal charges and very real consequences for the child. In response to the rising concern of disciplinary rates, discriminatory practices and the role of the SROs, the Department of Education and Justice issued a 2014, “Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” (ACLU, 2019).

Statistical data is not complete and absolute due to it being voluntary, biased and under reported (ACLU, 2019). Such as the incidents where students are charged with disorderly conduct for inappropriate language or talking back to an adult/SRO. Serious offenses for which students are arrested or referred to law enforcement include physical attack or fight without a weapon (75%), threats of physical attack without a weapon (19%) and robbery without a weapon (2%), creating concern that criminal charges often may be deemed “excessive” and discriminatory (ACLU, 2019).

From ACLU’s 2019, Cops and No Counselors; How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students, here reflects the statistics and the effect on disparity students:

  • Students with disabilities are arrested three times more than their non-disabled peers 
  • Black students are arrested three times more than white students 
  • Native Americans, Pacific Island/Native Hawaiian students are arrested more than twice that of white students 
  • Latinx students are arrested 1.3 times more than white students 
    • North Dakota CROC 2015-2016 Data 
      • School Arrests 200 students (110,000 total enrolled) -59 where students with disabilities, 50 where Black 48 where Native American 29 where Latino, 11 where Caucasian and 10 where Asian – of these 14 where without disability 
      • Law Enforcement Referral: 609 students (110,000 total enrolled)- 128 where students with disabilities, 92 Black, 88 Latino, 121 Native American, 90 Pacific Islander, 45 Caucasian, 21 Asian, 75 students without disabilities 
      • School Arrests for Boys of Color with Disability *above national average*
      • School Arrests for Girls by Race *above national average* for Black, Native American and Latino 
      • 61% trend growth in school arrest and law enforcement referrals *above national average* 

The reality is that American youth currently have some of the lowest crime rates in our communities, just not in our public schools (ACLU, 2019). Generational low use of chemical use and juvenile crime rates are at a historic low (ACLU, 2019). And yet, every time a student is met with aversion intervention or school-discipline practice, they lose valuable academic and developmental progress. SROs have no statistical value in preventing school shootings, while they are noted to have a harmful effect on minorities, males, and students with disabilities. That effect has been termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Reform: It is imperative to find a collaborative balance between the two separate issues of school “health” and “safety” needs with a student-focused, trauma-informed approach. To address the national outcry for police reform there must include due diligence in defining the role, actions, and responsibilities of the SROs within our public schools. It is often a child’s first encounter of social injustice that occurs in this arena; a public school. The suggested reforms include recommendations found within ACLU’s, Cops and No Counselors, and represent a collaboration from Victoria Johnson, Nicki Kehr and Teresa Olafson.

  • Financially Support school-based mental health (SBMH) providers/systems in public schools to offset the ratio disparities noted within this report and by virtue:
  • Remove federal funding specifically directed for law enforcement in public schools 
    • States can individually fund any shortfalls LEAs may occur such as they do Special Education shortfalls 
  • Establish a national Student to SRO ratio based on population alone instead of implicit bias of discriminatory student demographic information 
  • Establish and enforce Civil Right Protection of Students 
    • Attention for students with disabilities and the role of SROs 
  • Establish a mandated data collection system that directly ties federal funding to incentives compliance by states/LEAs (local education agencies) 
  • Enhance and expedite Due Process Rights for students 
  • Mandate or enhance the Office of Civil Rights role and responsibility to collect and investigate concerning trends reported by states/LEAs and allow for SRO complaints as part of discriminatory practices per ADA and Section 504 
  • Establish a National Standard of Qualifications for SROs 
  • Establish a National Standard of Training 
    • Trauma Informed Model of Care 
    • Child/Adolescent Development that focuses on social and emotional learning 
    • Disabilities training and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 
    • Conflict Resolution 
    • Diversity training 
    • Juvenile Justice
  • Develop a Federal description of the role and responsibility of a SRO, including chain of command and accountability to schools as an administrative position and local law enforcement agency as employer 
  • No Federal funding for weaponizing SROs in public schools.
  • Prohibit use of force based upon age, physical and disability characteristic of student(s).
  • Prohibit use of prone restraint, isolation, and seclusion.
  • Prohibit use of mechanical restraint (ie: handcuffs) based upon age, physical and disability characteristic of student(s).
  • Eliminate SROs in elementary school. Young, developing brains cannot comprehend what constitutes a criminal act; “the mens rea” standard.Limit or eliminate the SROs’ role as a public-school administrator and redefine the role as a contracted position
  • Remove Qualified Immunity 
  • Create a bilateral complaint system; State Department of Instruction and the Attorney General’s Office that investigates allegations of discrimination or excessive use of force resulting in injury INCLUDING trauma 
  • Limit SROs involvement with traditional student developmental or disability-related behaviors that are best addressed through a Multi-tier system of support, school-based mental health (SBMH) providers and IDEA’s Child Find.
    • STOP School Violence Act should not support the unnecessary criminalization of student behaviors

References

ACLU (2019). Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from: https://www.aclu.org/report/cops-and-no-counselors

Fisher, B.W. & Hennessy, E.A. (2016). School Resource Officers and Exclusionary Discipline in U.S. High Schools: A Systemic Review and Meta-analysis. Adolescent Research Review, 1, 217-233. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-015-0006-

Ryan, J.B., Katsiyannis, A., Counts, J.M. & Shelnut, J.C. (2018). The Growing Concerns Regarding School Resource Officers. Interventions in School and Clinic, 5 3(4). DOI: 10.1177/1053451217702108

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