Associate professor weighs in on national debate and calls for funding for counselors and security guards as an alternative

As K-12 schools prepare for reopening, coronavirus safety protocol isn't the only issue that school officials are debating.

Schools across the nation are announcing reforms that could remove school resource officer programs. The program of deploying sworn law enforcement officers into schools was first documented in 1953 with the goal to protect school safety and prevent crime. Since then, the use of SROs has increased dramatically in response to school shootings, such as the one at Columbine High School in 1999.

But now, some school districts are calling for more training of SROs, while others are calling for their removal altogether. That sentiment intensified after the killing of George Floyd in May, which ignited the call to defund police departments.

Elizabeth Anthony, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, researches the effectiveness of school resource officers and believes the number of SROs should be decreased and the number of social workers on campus increased.

She recently gave a presentation to the Phoenix Elementary School Board as board members gather data for a future decision on school resource officers.

ASU now spoke with Anthony about her research, which finds the use of SROs problematic and aims to promote resilience among vulnerable young people.

Question: What are the biggest school safety and security issues that students and teachers are currently facing?

Answer: School violence, youth violence (fighting, bullying threats with weapons, gang-related violence), sexual violence, suicide, injuries, getting to and from school safely, food insecurity and trauma-related responses are all major issues of concern for students and teachers. 

Q: What are the systemic problems that you’ve found with SROs and their interactions with students?

A: The systemic problems with SROs have been found consistently across several research studies. Black and brown students are more likely to be disciplined than their white peers. Students with disabilities, especially those with emotional behavior disorders, were at increased risk of exposure to adjudication. A large body of research documents the negative effects of school disciplinary practices on Black males. 

Mounting evidence suggests that in schools with SROs, students are being arrested for minor and less serious misbehavior. Discipline problems historically handled by school principals and teachers who know the children are now being handled by SROs. In addition, SROs are typically deployed in schools with large minority populations, particularly Black youth, which may exacerbate the disproportionate targeting of Black and brown youth. This leads to increased concern about the school-to-prison pipeline.  

Q: The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a report that shows school resource officers could have a profound impact on the school’s ability to prevent targeted violence. Based on your research, what kind of evidence is available on the effectiveness of SROs in preventing school violence?

A: There is no rigorous, causal research evidence supporting (the fact that) armed guards reduce school violence or school shootings or make schools safer. A relationship between the presence of an SRO and fewer fights at school, weapons being brought to school and alleged drug crime arrests has been identified in some studies. Reports such as the U.S. Department of Justice report are based on the potential impact of SROs, when properly trained and with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. While there is no doubt that some SROs are well-trained and establish good relationships with children and youth, there is not consistent evidence to suggest as a group that SROs prevent targeted violence. There is, however, consistent evidence about the negative impacts of SROs on disproportionate school discipline.      

Q: Some school districts across the nation are moving to require SROs to be trained in social work and similar areas, if allowed by the state. What’s the benefit of that?

A: Additional training in social work, child development, childhood trauma, developmental disabilities, etc. would be beneficial in helping SROs understand the wide range of need students face. However, SROs would still be trained police officers first and would still have the ability to arrest children. This places them in a role with competing priorities and one in which safety of the school comes first.

Q: What are other security measures that schools can take to protect students, teachers and staff? 

A: Another option is one called “minimalist SROs,” advocated by Dr. Kenneth Anderson at Howard University. This would involve only employing SROs to protect the campus and limiting the contact with students. 

Anderson recommends a “multipronged school safety approach” that looks beyond just mass acts of violence. Focusing on policies that improve academic achievement, support families, promote personal responsibility, address youth and family unemployment and underemployment, and address inequalities has the potential to improve school safety over policing efforts. Research suggests that an authoritative rather than authoritarian approach to schools creates trust and results in less violence and bullying. 

We cannot let fear be the driving force behind policies. By considering metal detectors, armed guards, giving teachers guns and surveilling children, we are reverting back to a punitive approach to education rather than a supportive approach. The underlying causes of violence in schools are not addressed with stricter rules and armed guards. By using such a punitive approach, we are setting up youth who are still developing to be viewed as criminals, and far worse, to view themselves as criminals rather than young people who have the opportunity to learn.