In Fall 2020, I received an email from Phoenix Elementary School District #1, a K-8 school district requesting feedback about continuing to use school resource officers at seven of the district’s 14 elementary schools.
As a researcher who specializes in the policing and development of children and adolescents, I responded by sharing a summary of research on the topic of policing in schools and offering my advice. The school board president asked me to present research to the board on the impact school resource officers had on overall student well-being, school safety, and the school environment.
The school board was under pressure to make a decision about a divisive issue with a pending deadline. Parents and teachers were divided over the use of school resource officers. The youth were often a small but vocal force against school resource officers.
There are many sides to the school resource officer debate. The debate comes at a time when relations between communities and the police are becoming strained due to police firing and other negative encounters. It also comes at a time when cities such as Alexandria, Virginia, Washington and Milwaukee are grappling with whether there are school resource officers or regular police officers on campus.
I believe my experience presenting to the school board in Phoenix provides some important lessons for other communities as they try to figure out whether policing school campuses is an effective way to keep students safe. Is.
a divided community
During the hearing, the people of the society gave emotional testimony. One person said the School Resource Officer program “is a positive bridge between students, the community, and our local police force.”
A teacher’s union representative asked the board to devote more time to research and to survey parents, which had a lower response rate because parents had to complete the survey. She was also concerned that school resource officers would lead to disproportionate arrest rates for black and Latino children.
A teacher described how a school resource officer sprayed pepper on a crowd of students at her school and handcuffed a sixth-grade girl the next week.
“The coworkers justified the response by saying ‘we lack the resources’ and ‘the kids need to be taught a lesson’,” the teacher said at the hearing. “I was told by the principal that the officer can act in such a way as to protect the property of the school.”
The teacher expressed concern that the school district could not hold school resource officers accountable as officials report to the City of Phoenix.
“How can you let the most violent police force in our schools be there?” The teacher asked for reference to the Phoenix Police Department, which is under investigation by the US Justice Department for its use of deadly force.
One parent said they had a hard time understanding how the school district could commit itself to fighting Black Lives Matter and racism, then considered bringing police into their schools weeks later.
“It’s not wrong, it’s betrayal,” said the parent.
Balancing these different perspectives, the superintendent wanted to make his decision based on what the research shows. Timing was also an issue as school resource officers were required to respond within two weeks to grant grants.
Here are some highlights based on research I discussed during my presentation to the school board.
students are still developing
Juveniles may not understand their rights, which is important whenever they can potentially be taken into police custody.
Many children have also experienced trauma, such as being the victim of or being witnessed by violence. These experiences may in turn influence their behavior at school. Trauma is most effectively treated with social and emotional support, which the police may not be equipped to provide.
School counselors are rare
Despite the increasing demand for social and emotional support, schools often lack the staff to provide that support. In some states, the student-to-counselor ratio is 1,000-to-1, which is four times the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. With less counseling and support, students may be more likely to have negative encounters with the police rather than positive ones with counselors. This is especially likely given mounting evidence showing that students are being arrested for minor misconduct.
Black and Latino youth at greater risk of arrest
A 2018 study by school resource officers found that black and Latino students and students with disabilities – particularly emotional behavioral disorders – were at increased risk for referral to juvenile courts.
Increased police surveillance of young people leads to school discipline referrals and arrests, particularly for black and Latino youth.
My recommendation was that more time be taken to consider the issue and the needs of the community. I worried that not everyone was aware of the impact school resource officers had on school safety, student welfare, and arrest rates.
The superintendent directly asked me what would I do if I was pressured to take a decision now. I told the board that I thought the potential for harm outweighed the potential for good. Ultimately, the school board voted unanimously not to have school resource officers in district schools for the next school year.
a national problem
Phoenix elementary schools were not the only ones in or near the city to struggle for law enforcement on a school-based basis. In 2020, Phoenix Union High School voted to remove school resource officers from campus. Nearby Tempe Union High School also voted in 2021 to phase out school resource officers by August 2022.
School board decisions about school safety are difficult. Parents, teachers and students are often confused about what makes a school safe and welcoming. As school communities struggle over whether there should be police on school grounds, I believe the most important thing is not what people believe, but what the evidence shows.
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