Countless studies have been done on the use of school resource officers, also called SROs, in schools across the United States. But despite all the in-depth research, the impact of police in schools remains conflicted.
Denver Public Schools (DPS) does not have any SROs, as all 18 were removed from DPS campuses after the Board of Education unanimously voted in 2020 to end its relationship with the Denver Police Department. DPS still has armed and unarmed security officers.
On Thursday, in the wake of an East High School shooting in which police say a student shot two deans, fled, and then was found dead in Park County, the DPS Board of Education held a special meeting to discuss school safety and reintroducing SROs. The evening prior, DPS Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero announced he was reintroducing armed officers to each of the district’s comprehensive high schools beginning Thursday through the end of the school year. He acknowledged this "likely violates” Board of Education policy. Several East High students and parents called for increased security after Wednesday's shooting. In late February, East High students advocated for enhanced cameras, added security measures, school resource officers and limited access to campus.
Late Thursday afternoon, the board announced it had formally suspended the policy that removed SROs and approved the motion to reinstate them across city campuses.
School resource officers: Why they were removed from DPS and what happens now
These calls ignited a years-old debate about if SROs have a place in schools.
In this Denver7 report, we examine multiple scholarly articles and studies that examined multiple facets of this issue.
In February 2022, a study was published called “School Policing Programs: Where we have been and where we go next" by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is the research agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The NIJ was directed to provide a thorough study on the state of school policing. The group used two consultants to create the 105-page comprehensive review, which included data sources and findings from a four-day expert panel.
While experts said school policing initially began in Michigan in the 1950s, the implementation of SROs increased following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed.
After this tragedy, there was an additional uptick in SRO-related studies and discussions after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in which a gunman shot 20 children and six staff members.
One of the studies that the NIJ highlighted that was published shortly after the 2012 shooting was authored by N. James and G. McCallion and found that “the body of research on the effectiveness of SROs does not address whether their presence in schools has deterred mass shootings."
Since then, countless studies have been published addressing what happens when police have a presence in schools, and what happens when they don't.
The NIJ has released one of the most comprehensive studies in the past few years, using information from more than 100 resources.
“An examination of systematic reviews and quasi-experiments of school policing, along with expert panel opinions, reveals that the research to date does not support school policing as an effective strategy in increasing safety and security and that school policing is correlated with some harmful effects, such as increased exclusionary punishment in schools," the NIJ document reads. "This is not to say that no positive impacts have been reported for school policing, but they are fragmented and inconsistent across the studies.”
The document examined multiple other studies between 2000 and 2020. Below is a brief summary of each one.
"Protecting the flock or policing the sheep? Differences in school resource officers’ perceptions of threats by school racial composition"
This study was published in October 2020 by Benjamin Fisher and colleagues.
In this study, the authors looked at 28 studies comparing schools with policing to those without. It found that the schools without policing had about 3% fewer crime and discipline issues than schools with policing.
“In the four studies that compared individual students who were exposed to policing versus those who were not, the effect was also negative but slightly larger, with about 5.5% worse crime and discipline outcomes among students in schools without policing," NIJ wrote.
The study analyzed interviews with 73 SROs from two school districts with a variety of racial compositions.
"Across both districts, SROs perceived three major categories of threats: student-based, intruder-based, and environment-based threats," Fisher's study reads. "However, the focus and perceived severity of the threats varied across districts such that SROs in the district with a larger proportion of White students were primarily concerned about external threats (i.e., intruder-based and environment-based) that might harm the students, whereas SROs in the district with a larger proportion of Black students were primarily concerned with students themselves as threats."
This study was published in 2008 by Lynette M. Barnes.
The author analyzed statewide data in North Carolina public schools from 1995 to 2000. Over time, the number of schools varied from 122 in 1995 to 176 in 2020.
Five years of data was used, and covered schools with and without SRO programs, as well as schools that had SROs and got rid of the program and ones that newly welcomed the program.
"The results indicated that the placement of an SRO had little to no impact on the levels of crime and negative behavior in school," the NIJ study read. "As a possible explanation for this outcome, the study’s author suggested that if officers are often pulled out of school assignments for various tasks, they may not have an opportunity to develop bonds with students."
This study was published in 2018 by Deanna N. Devlin, Mateus Rennó Santos, and Denise C. Gottfredson
The authors of this study used data from the School Survey on Crime and Safety to study police impact on bullying in schools.
"Using three years of data, she compared 480 schools that had initiated, discontinued, or continued their use of school police from one time point to another to a control group of schools without police," the report reads. "She reported that there was no effect on school bullying."
The Devlin study reads: "Policy implications of these findings suggest that programs that focus on components such as teaching social and emotional competency skills, improving relationships between students and adults, and creating a positive school environment may be more effective in reducing bullying than a security procedure such as the use of SROs."
This study was published in 2020 by Denise C. Gottfredson, Scott Crosse, Zhiqun Tang, Erin L. Bauer, Michele A. Harmon, Carol A. Hagen, and Angela D. Greene.
In a 36-page study published in Criminology and Public Policy from California on SROs, the author compared 33 public schools that enhanced their SRO programs to 72 schools that did not increase their SRO staffing.
"In the treatment schools, SROs spent about half their time in activities related to law enforcement and order maintenance, 30 percent of their time on counseling and mentoring, and 20 percent in teaching activities," Gottfredson's study reads.
It also found that in the schools that increased SRO staffing, there was an increase in the number of drug- and weapons-related offenses compared to the schools that did not increase the number of SROs.
"There was also an increase in exclusionary disciplinary action by the schools with increased SRO staffing," it continues. "Because of this latter finding, the study recommends that schools consider security alternatives to an increased law enforcement presence in schools."
The NIJ study also compared two studies — one by Kristin Swartz and colleagues in 2015 and another by Wesley Jennings in 2016 — that seemed to contrast one another. The Swartz study found that schools with an officer were associated with higher rates of reported serious violence, while Jennings found that the presence of an officer was associated with decreased serious violent crime. However, in the later study, Jennings noted that the use of a security officer, rather than an SRO, was associated with an increase in serious violent crime.
A report published by Jeffrey A. Daniels and supported by the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the National Police Foundation looked at the Averted School Violence (ASV) database, which was established in 2015 as a place to share information about these incidents and lessons learned "with the goal of mitigating and ultimately preventing future injuries and fatalities in educational institutions."
The report examined how violent plots were discovered using 51 of the cases that had been entered into the database as of January 2018. Most commonly, other students found and reported the plan. In four cases, law enforcement other than SROs discovered the plot and in three cases, school teachers learned about the intended violence. It notes that none of these violent plans were uncovered by SROs.
The below table looked at schools' security measures.
The NIJ said while there are anecdotal reports of SROs preventing violent acts, "there are no data, however, that indicate whether students are more likely to share information on a possible act of violence with an officer or another adult they trust."
Along those lines, the COPS and National Police Foundation review said the primary reason students gave for not reporting their concerns about another student is that they did not take the threat seriously.
The NIJ noted that school-based law enforcement was present at the Parkland High School shooting, Santa Fe High School shooting and Columbine High School shooting.
"The challenge with using stories or anecdotes is that there is usually one example in each category that any side in a debate can use to make their case," the NIJ continues.
Aside from the studies, the NIJ also reported on its findings from a four-day panel with school policing experts from 2020. The experts made the following points:
- There needs to be a consistent set of expectations but with flexibility
- Officer roles need to be communicated and supported
- “One-and-done” training can’t be the standard
- Officers and educators should train together to familiarize with tools available and strategies other group may use
- Officer training should be aligned with what they actually need
- There are many barriers to training for police (financial, department resistance to change, etc.)
- With existing evidence, the experts didn’t feel school policing has shown promise
- Current evidence may or may not be reliable
- Need better understanding of alternatives to policing
- Future funding should support rigorous evaluations
- Benefits to school policing needs to be better understood
- Role of police in schools is not always clear
- Racial and ethnic disparities exist
"School resource officers, safety, and discipline: Perceptions and experiences across racial/ethnic groups in Minnesota secondary schools” by Christen Pentek and Marla Eisenberg, published in May 2018 by the Children and Youth Services Review, used a sample of 126,868 students and analyzed their associations between awareness of SROs in schools and school safety. It also looked at differences in disciplinary experiences and race.
The Pentek/Eisenberg study found that 71% of students reported awareness of an SRO and perceptions were fairly neutral. Four of six racial and ethnic groups had no statistical difference in feeling safe with an SRO presence.
It concluded that white and Asian students had more positive perceptions of SROs than Black, multiracial and American Indian students. However, it also determined that the odds of a Black student feeling safe were 21% higher in a school with an SRO than in a school without one.
Another study, titled "The Influence of School Resource Officer Presence on Teacher Perceptions of School Safety and Security” by Brandon J. Wood and published in School Psychology Review in 2021, surveyed 4,000 teachers in a Midwestern state. Of those, 63% reported that they had an SRO presence at their school.
"Despite the rise in SRO popularity, over the last 3 decades, research on the perceived impact of SRO presence in schools is mixed and generally relies on student reports," the study read. It continued: "Results of the current study suggest that teachers positively associate SRO presence with feelings of safety and security, but they perceive students to be more fearful and less secure in buildings employing SROs."
Of the 4,000 surveyed teachers, about 3.8K of them denounced the idea that schools are dangerous places.
While all of the above studies examined different facets of SROs in schools, almost all of them agreed that more studies are needed.
The end of the NIJ review said that although more and more evidence is being collected on the topic of SROs in schools, there is still "little rigorous evaluative research" and most of the studies only look at if SROs are present or not and excludes other factors, like officer training, support they receive and how they are selected for the position. However, it stands firm saying the evidence currently available "does not suggest that police in schools increase safety and security."
The NIJ study provided five recommendations to continue studies on SROs in schools:
- Dedicate and sustain funding for the study of school policing programs that supports targeted research to improve the existing knowledge base
- Ensure that the most rigorous and appropriate research designs are being used in the study of school policing
- Focus more, in both practice and research, on the selection of officers for school positions
- Provide officers with training specific to working in schools, and to the duties and activities expected of that officer in that school
- Implement and test a consistent set of implementation characteristics for setting up and operating school policing programs
The COPS and National Police Foundation review also made recommendations at the end of its study. It called for:
- Preparation, including police working closely with the school system and having a plan in place for emergencies
- Developing relationships between law enforcement and school personnel, including staff like custodians and cafeteria employees
- Creating positive relationships with students and a climate of trust and respect so they will feel comfortable reporting a threat
- All school staff being aware of the school's culture and noticing when a student is being singled out or bullied
- Law enforcement and emergency managers knowing the physical facilities around schools, the layout, and parking rules for staff, students and families
- Maintaining hardware, like cameras
- Taking all reports seriously. False threats should not deter school personnel and law enforcement from acting
- Never assuming an attack won't happen in a small, tight-knit community. Attacks can happen anywhere
- Understanding that perpetrator demographics of school shooters show that there is no one type of school shooter. While most tend to be young white men, school shooters can be females and vary in ethnic background. Don't discredit a threat because the individual doesn't fit the stereotype