Do Police Officers In Schools Really Make Them Safer?

Mar 8, 2018
Originally published on March 8, 2018 9:42 pm

When the bell rings at Chicago's Sullivan High School on the city's far north side, it's a familiar scene. Hundreds of students pour into the hallway heading to their next class. What's also becoming increasingly familiar is the presence of two uniformed police officers in the hallway keeping watch. The school resource officers often chat with the students passing by and Sullivan's principal Chad Adams says the officers provide a higher level of security for the school and much more.

"The thing that's most important for the school and I think any school in this country — especially in the plight of what's happened in Florida — is relationships," says Adams. "These school officers that I am lucky enough to have at my school build relationships with kids."

School-based policing is considered one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement. After the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many people — including the President Trump — said there should be school resource officers inside every school.

That's rekindled a debate over the role of police in schools and the affect they have on students and school safety. Advocates believe school resource officers can best handle any threats at schools. Critics say their presence creates unintended consequences like suspensions, expulsions and arrests — especially for students of color.

To be clear, school resource officers (SROs) are sworn police officers and not security guards. It's not a lame assignment or a job for a cop looking for a cushy job before retirement, says Mac Hardy, Operations Director for the National Association of School Resource Officers.

"When I first started, they used to call you kiddie cops but that was a misnomer," says Hardy. "Our job is so vital and important. Every day when you put on your uniform you know there are thousands of parents relying on you to work closely with that school administration and that community to keep that campus safe."

There's no official count but NASRO estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 officers in about 30 percent of the country's schools. Those numbers began to grow after the deadly Columbine High School shooting in 1999. But there is no evidence to show that expanding law enforcement by adding SROs actually results in safer schools says Marc Schindler, head of the Justice Policy Institute.

"In fact, the data really shows otherwise — that this is largely a failed approach in devoting a significant amount of resources but not getting the outcome in school safety that we are all looking for."

The school in Parkland, Fla. had a school resource officer on duty during the shooting. The Broward Sheriff said the officer remained outside in a defensive position at the time of the shooting - a response that was roundly criticized and is part of the debate over whether having resource officers make schools safer.

While there are conflicting studies about the effectiveness of police in schools, Schindler says research shows they bring plenty of unintended consequences for students. He says that includes higher rate of suspensions, expulsions and arrests that funnel kids into the criminal justice system. That's especially true, he says, in schools attended predominantly by students of color.

When Amina Henderson, now 20 years old, was a senior at a high school on Chicago's south side she and a fellow student fought. The school had them gather in a peace circle to try to resolve the situation. Henderson says she felt overwhelmed during the discussion and walked away. She says a school security guard pushed her head, told her to sit down and she pushed back. "A couple of police officers came up to my Dean's room and they handcuffed me," says Henderson. "I had my fingerprints taken as well as my mug shots." Henderson was charged with aggravated assault and says that even though the charges were dropped, she's still shaken by the event.

Outside his old high school, on Chicago's northwest side, 19-year-old Antonio Magic says if SROs are supposed to build relationships with students they often don't do a good job of it. "The only time I seen police interacting with students," says Magic, "was when students were being arrested."

Now a college student, Magic says school resources officers arrested him three times at his old high school — once when he was involved in a fight, again when he talked back to a teacher and after he led a student walkout. "Next thing I'm being slammed up against a table and put in handcuffs," says Magic, "and I was charged with interfering with higher education, resisting arrest and aggravated battery. His sentence was 18 months of supervision. He says he accepted a plea deal after a judge warned he could get a five-year sentence.

Now some activists, including Magic and Henderson with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, are lobbying for changes that would allow school districts to use some money designated for school resource officers for school psychologists, social workers and other strategies.

The push continues, though, in some communities to increase the number of police officers in schools in the hopes of making those schools safer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Another story now. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida has reignited the debate about the role of police in schools. Many, including President Trump, say there should be police or school resource officers inside every school. School-based policing is one of the fastest-growing areas of law enforcement. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on how school police officers affect students and school safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONE)

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: When classes change at Chicago's Sullivan High School on the city's far North Side, hundreds of students pour into the hallway. Two uniformed police officers keeping watch chat with some students. Principal Chad Adams says the police officers provide a higher level of security for Sullivan and more.

CHAD ADAMS: The most - thing that's important for this school and I think any school in this country, especially in the plight of what's happened in Florida - these relationships. It's these school officers that I am lucky enough to have at my school build relationships with kids.

CORLEY: To be clear, school resource officers, or SROs, are sworn police officers and not security guards. Mac Hardy is the operations director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO. He says they tell cops they train if they are looking for some sort of cushy job before they retire to look elsewhere. And if they consider getting a school resource officer position a lame assignment, that's not the case.

MAC HARDY: That was a misnomer when I first started. They used to you call kiddie cops and so forth. But our job is so vital. There are thousands of parents that are relying on you to work closely with that school administration and that community to keep that campus safe.

CORLEY: There's no official count, but NASRO estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 officers in about 30 percent of the country's schools. Those numbers began to grow after the deadly Columbine High School shooting in 1999. But Marc Schindler, the head of the Justice Policy Institute, says there is no evidence to show that expanding law enforcement by adding SROs results in safer schools.

MARC SCHINDLER: In fact, the data really shows otherwise, that this is largely a failed approach in devoting a very significant amount of resources but not getting the outcome of school safety that we're all looking for.

CORLEY: The school in Parkland, Fla., had a school resource officer on duty during the shooting. His response during the attack was roundly criticized and is part of the debate over whether having resource officers makes schools safer. While there are conflicting studies about the effectiveness of police in schools, Schindler says research shows they bring plenty of unintended consequences for students. He says that includes higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and arrests that funnel kids into the criminal justice system. That's especially true, he says, in schools attended predominantly by students of color.

AMINA HENDERSON: My name is Amina Henderson.

CORLEY: Three years ago, Henderson was a senior at a South Side Chicago high school. She was involved in a peace circle after she and another student fought. But she says she felt overwhelmed and walked away from that discussion. Henderson says a school security guard pushed her head, told her to sit down, and she pushed back.

HENDERSON: A couple of police officers came up to my dean's room and, you know, they handcuffed me. I had my fingerprints taken as well as my mug shots.

CORLEY: Henderson says she's still shaken by that event even though the charges against her - aggravated assault - were dropped. Outside his old high school on Chicago's Northwest Side, 19-year-old Antonio Magic says if SROs are supposed to build relationships with students, they often don't do a good job of it.

ANTONIO MAGIC: The only time I've seen police officers interacting with students is when students were being arrested.

CORLEY: Now a college student, Magic says school resource officers arrested him three times at the school, including the time he led a student walkout.

MAGIC: Next thing I'm being slammed up against a table, put in handcuffs. And I was charged with interfering with higher education, resisting arrest and aggravated battery.

CORLEY: His sentence was 18 months of supervision. Now both students are part of Voice (ph), an activist group lobbying for changes that would allow school districts to use some money designated for school resource officers for school psychologists, social workers and other strategies. The push continues, though, in some communities to add more police in schools in the hopes of making them safer. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "HIGGS BOSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.