Welcome to Learning Liberation’s Cops out of Schools Series, Part Two. If you missed part one, You Don’t Solve Police Brutality Through Public Relations, you can check it out at the link before reading on. (But it’s not a prerequisite to understanding this post)
Content Warning: This post may be triggering or painful for readers as it includes verbal descriptions of school shootings. There are no images of these events.
When I started this series, I really thought that School Resource Officers (SROs) were part of schools in order to protect students in case of violence. As it turned out, that was never really the intent of the SRO program.
Even so, “They protect students from crime!” is now a common argument for hiring and stationing police officers in our public schools. Anecdotes about cops saving a school from a deadly intruder pop up on social media every once in a while, with plenty of comments about how critical armed police officers are (82% of SROs carry a firearm). I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard or read, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”
First of all, anecdotes about a single officer thwarting a violent attack are not enough to make a strong case. After all, for every story you might read about an officer preventing a violent incident in an elementary, middle, or high school, you can find another story about an officer who didn’t:
- The biggest K-12 school shooting in history, the Columbine High School Massacre, took the lives of fifteen people and injured twenty-one more. All of those victims were under the “protection” of an armed SRO.
- Before a student shot and killed several classmates and teachers at Red Lake High School, he murdered the school security guard.
- A school shooting in Omaha, Nebraska ended with the shooter opening fire at police and fleeing the school.
- A 15-year-old student in Washington fatally shot four students and injured a fifth before the school’s police officer even made it to the scene.
Secondly, these stories are just the ones the news pick up on. To really figure out how SROs affect school-based criminal activity, you have to gather a large quantity of data about a lot of police based in a lot of different schools in different parts of the country. This data is not really fun for most people (including me) to analyze, but luckily I found some reports that helped me make sense of it. So let’s look at the hard data!
The good news is that right now, schools are the safest they’ve ever been!
Just like the overall crime rate in the United States, the crime rate in schools has been dropping steadily over the past few decades. The rate of crimes in all K-12 schools decreased by 69% from 1993 to 2008. And between 2008 and 2015, it dropped another third. Today, only 3% of middle and high school students have been harmed by theft, violence, or crime at school.
And it’s not just the crime rate that has dropped. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that fewer 7-12th grade students (see Fig. 3) are being bullied now than a decade ago. In a 2015 report, the NCES also found that the percentage of teachers who have been insulted or verbally attacked by students has decreased by 60%. The percentage of students who have been harrassed for their sexual orientation or gender identity has dropped to just 1%.
Many people believe that these improvements in school safety are a sign that SROs work, and have made schools safer. But these data came from all kinds of schools – not just schools that employ cops. Maybe schools with SROs have seen a bigger decrease than schools without them? To find out, we have to look at school crime rates as a function of SRO presence. Data from the Justice Policy Institute and the National Center for Education Statistics show that even though the number of SROs decreased slightly from 2003 to 2007, the crime rate dropped to the lowest to date: just 57 reported crimes per 1,000 students, down from 73 crimes per 1,000 students in 2003 –when the number of SROs was at its highest.
More recently, a team of researchers from the University of Texas (Gonzalez et. al., 2016) conducted an analysis of 32 studies of school safety measures, including SRO programs. They found that increased safety measures, like hiring SROs, actually decrease students’ feelings of safety and that “implementation of more security measures may not be an effective policy.” Another study by criminal justice experts at the Universites of Houston and Maryland (Na and Gottfredson, 2011) “found no evidence suggesting that SRO or other sworn law-enforcement officers contribute to school safety. That is, for no crime type was an increase in the presence of police significantly related to decreased crime rates. … to the contrary, more crimes … are recorded in schools that add police officers than in similar schools that do not.” (p. 24) Even the U.S. government admits that there is no evidence proving that SROs prevent school-based crime.
So, in summary: There is no evidence at all that school police make K-12 schools safer.
What does happen when schools bring in full-time police officers is that more students are detained, arrested, and funneled into the criminal justice system, often for behavior that would otherwise be addressed by educators. And that, my dear liberators, will be the subject of Part 3 in the Cops Out of Schools series.