Equity & School Safety

School Resource Officer Organization Says SROs Working to 'Seal Off' School-to-Prison Pipeline

As a June 2021 survey by Ed Week found, school districts all over the country are choosing to end their contracts with local police, make major budget cuts for school police or rework their plans to address community concerns about police and discipline in school. Some of the thinking behind those decisions is that by placing police officers in education settings, schools are creating a "school to prison pipeline," especially for students of color.

As a counterpoint, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) is trying to convince a K-12 audience that its membership, made up of school resource officers (SROs), is working as a positive force in school communities.

SROs are career law enforcement officers with sworn authority deployed in schools that have agreements with local law enforcement agencies.

Recently, NASRO issued the results of a survey among 1,700 SROs. The study found that while two-thirds of respondents (67%) said their primary function on campus was to do law enforcement, a sizable share also primarily self-identify as mentors/counselors (26%) and teachers (7%). In spite of the dominance of law enforcement as a primary function, the study's authors stated, respondents said they spent more time handling mentor/counselor activities (48%) than law enforcement (46%).

The research also found that on most days, 70% of respondents meet with school administration and 56% work with guidance counselors, school nurses or social workers, which indicates "strong collaboration between SROs and other school staff members."

A big part of the survey was dedicated to understanding how SROs respond in certain types of situations, such as mutual fights with and without injuries, tobacco possession, vandalism, "student drama," theft and truancy. Most of the time, SROs would respond with counseling or mentoring or referrals to school administrators, "casting doubt on the 'school to prison' notion," the researchers noted.

Interestingly, the survey found that the more officer training received by NASRO, the harsher the response from the SRO. Why would that be? The researchers offered a few explanations: "First, it may be that the SRO, who has established a relationship with the student, becomes frustrated with repeat offenses by the student. Second, it may be that the introduction of the SRO to the school system identifies previous 'non-actions' on the part of the school system to pursue harsh remedies. In other words, the school may have elected not to pursue more harsh responses to protect their image or to not get involved in criminal justice procedures electing the easy way out."

When arrests of students occurred — "the most consequential decision an SRO can make" — a third of the time it was because of crimes the SROs observed themselves (36%) or because of crimes observed by school staff (37%). The survey didn't examine what kinds of events would specifically trigger arrests.

When it comes to that most tragic of campus events, an "active shooter," the survey asked different participants to size up the level of confidence they had in the SRO's ability to respond. The SRO gave himself or herself the highest marks for confidence, followed by local police and school administration. From there, it went downhill quickly: faculty and staff weren't sure how confident they were in the SRO's abilities; students were more likely to say they weren't confident; and parents as a subgroup were likely to say they had no confidence at all.

In this case, the researchers suggested, the outcomes were probably tied to poor communications. "Active shooter drills have become perfunctory for school personnel and fail to communicate the importance of such drills [and] students see shortcomings in the drills and the overall school protection strategy that have not been communicated to the SRO," the report stated. "Where there are weaknesses in the confidence of any program, the SRO must look at his or her communications with all interested parties, and further, evaluate the level of partnership with each."

In spite of the overall depth of the survey, the authors emphasized that a "significant variable" not included in the survey was ethnicity, both of the SRO and the ethnic profile of the school or district. "We believe that additional research on this topic is important to shed light on potential systemic influences on racist practices and where such practices exist," the report stated.

"Responses of more than 1,700 SROs from all 50 states indicate that when encountering negative, potentially criminal student behaviors, respondents seek to avoid the justice system as their preferred option," said researcher Beth Sanborn, co-author and SRO in Pennsylvania, in a statement. "Rather than building school-to-prison pipelines, SROs who responded to our survey are working to seal them off."

The study, "Measuring the Strategic Fit of the School Resource Officer with Law Enforcement (Leaders), the Education System, the Community and Other Interested Parties," is openly available on the NASRO website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.