School Climate & Safety

Impact of School Police: Many Unanswered Questions

By Evie Blad — January 24, 2017 | Corrected: January 25, 2017 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misstated Professor Sheri Bauman’s academic discipline and incorrectly reported the number of schools that are part of a research control group.

Academics and activists alike hope the results of ongoing federally funded research on school police, school climate, and student safety will help inform both policy changes and the broader public debate over the role of law enforcement in schools.

A lack of rigorous research and statistical data on school police has made it difficult to track their effectiveness and to determine what factors affect their contributions to school climate, researchers say.

While advocacy groups point to unfavorable outcomes—like higher rates of arrest and referrals to law enforcement for black students—there’s little consistent national data on factors that may account for variations between different schools.

That includes information on the various types of agreements between school districts and the law enforcement agencies they contract with to provide school police. Details on the training, backgrounds, and race of school-based officers might also help explain some of the dynamics of their interactions with students.

Also missing is a critical mass of broad, large-scale studies on whether or not school police programs meet one of their core goals in many districts: reducing crime and keeping students safe from outside threats, like school shooters, a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

“The body of research on the effectiveness of [school resource officer] programs is limited, both in terms of the number of studies published and the methodological rigor of the studies conducted,” that report said. “The research that is available draws conflicting conclusions about whether [school resource officer] programs are effective at reducing school violence.”

More research of all kinds could inform improvements to school police programs and student discipline policies and help flag systemic issues that may lead to unnecessarily harsh discipline in some situations, said Phillip Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“In some ways, we’re nowhere on police in schools. We’ve just begun to understand that when you place police in schools, arrests are more likely,” he said, referring to findings disputed by some police groups, “But there are some modifiers for that.”

The lack of information on school police mirrors a larger lack of data on law enforcement in general, Goff said. For example, there was no national dataset of officer-involved shootings until news organizations began collecting such information independently, he said.

Studies on School Police Underway

Complicating the quest for research and data: school police are employed through a variety of channels. Some work directly for districts with their own police departments, while many are placed in schools through cooperative agreements with local police and sheriff’s departments. Some officers work in schools part time, and some rotate among schools, making it hard to track their interactions with students.

Most research on school police is based on a sample of schools or an analysis of previously collected data from a single district, which may not allow researchers to glean insights that are transferrable across rural, suburban, and urban areas, said the Congressional Research Service report. And many studies lack control groups to test their findings, said the report, which was compiled following the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Like Columbine and other mass shootings, Sandy Hook was met with calls for more police and armed staff in school by lawmakers on the state and local levels.

In addition to federal grants for school resource officers and calls for stricter gun laws, the Obama administration responded to those shootings by calling for more research about all areas of school safety, including bullying, discipline, the use of data in threat assessment, and training for school police.

In 2014, the National Institute of Justice launched its Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, awarding $75 million in grants to fund research in these areas. The agency awarded additional waves of grants in 2015 and 2016.

It may be a few more years before researchers begin publishing the first of their findings, as many of the funded studies and pilot-projects have a multi-year time frame.

In Connecticut, for example, researchers are tracking four years of data from a pilot group of 12 schools to determine if training school staff members about the role of school-based police can lead to more consistent discipline across different groups of students and reduce discriminatory impact.

“There has not been a clearly articulated role for the police in schools,” said Ronald Sabatelli, a human development professor at the University of Connecticut who is leading evaluation of the project. “And there needs to be a reinforcement of best practices in terms of how to respond to disciplinary issues with students.”

Teachers, administrators, and officers at participating schools completed a one-day training program to ensure that they are all on the same page about police responsibilities and the limits of their involvement in routine discipline issues. Another group of demographically similar control schools, where staff did not receive training, will also be monitored to track differences in disciplinary incidents and referrals to law enforcement.

In Arizona, a statewide project funded through the federal grants may help meet the demand for large, scaleable data on the effectiveness of school resource officers.

Officials at the Arizona education department are working with researchers at the University of Arizona to test enhanced school resource officer training in 15 schools throughout the state.

“There’s almost no empirical quality research that examines the effects of school resource officers on school climate,” said Sheri Bauman, a professor of counseling at the University of Arizona who is helping lead the project.

That training for police and student support personnel in participating schools includes information on working in a school environment, student discipline, and childhood trauma.

Participating schools have working groups of administrators, school counselors, and police officers who examine data and seek to solve problems in their schools. For example, one school’s team realized bullying reports were clustered in one area of the school and worked to move more adults there during transition times, said Kris Bosworth, a professor of education at the University of Arizona who is also working on the project. In another school, an officer noticed that many tardy reports were coming from students whose parents were getting stuck in a slow-moving school drop-off lane and worked with administrators to reroute it.

Sometimes school police help to see a problem “with a different set of eyes,” Bauman said. “And sometimes they can relate to kids who wouldn’t relate to a mental health professional.”

Researchers plan to compare those schools to two groups of control schools—16 where officers received only basic police training mandated by the state and 15 schools that applied for state-funded police officers but did not receive them.

They are collecting a broad variety of data points, including more traditional data on discipline incidents and law enforcement referrals and new information, like how and when officers interact with students and information from surveys of officers, school staff, and students about their perceptions of the school environment. Researchers are also collecting information about the officers, including their training, background in law enforcement, and perception of their responsibilities at school.

“We need some data,” Bauman said. “We need to know what’s working and not working and to be able to make decisions based on some kind of factual basis instead of hunches, or stories we’ve heard, or our beliefs about what makes a safe school.”

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