With nightmare visions of a gunman stalking school halls, districts often rush to hire police officers to patrol their campuses after news of a school shooting.
Critics of that impulsive response, which has been in high gear nationwide since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, acknowledge the concern for student and staff safety that drives the addition of school resource officers, as such police are often known.
But they say the rarity of deadly school incidents must be weighed against the likelihood that an influx of officers will raise the stakes on school discipline and funnel students into the juvenile-justice system for matters administrators should handle in-house.
In Denver, the school district and the city police department are recasting the role of police officers from peacekeepers to student confidants who work to improve school climate. A new agreement de-emphasizes the role of school police in enforcing the code of conduct—a change the two agencies hope will cut down on juvenile citations and arrests.
But the Sandy Hook shootings may have halted growing national momentum to decrease police presence in schools. Just two days before 26 pupils and staff members were killed at the Newtown, Conn., school, a U.S. Senate hearing probed the so-called school-to-prison pipeline—a catchphrase for civil rights groups’ concerns about growth in the numbers of school-based arrests in some states.
A week after the shootings, the National Rifle Association declared a need for armed security in every school in the country.
A month later, President Barack Obama called for adding up to 1,000 more officers in schools and putting $150 million behind the effort, coupled with the option of hiring school psychologists, social workers, and counselors.
Some local governments, such as Prince William County, Va., that previously proposed cutting officers, suddenly have found money to add officers midyear. And some states, including South Carolina, have proposed putting officers at every school, regardless of the cost or need.
The charge to make the police presence at schools universal worries even groups that support the addition of officers.
“You have to know this officer that you’re placing into this school environment. The wrong person in there—they can really do a lot of damage, reflect poorly on your department, and cause the whole community to say, ‘We don’t want law enforcement in schools,’” said Maurice “Mo” Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Ala.
“Just putting officers in schools with no training, ... that’s a recipe for disaster,” he said. “That’s where the school-to-prison movement gets some of its momentum.”
Years of Growth
School resource officers have been in schools in one form or another for decades, but their ranks surged after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. After that, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a program to help pay for school-based officers and provide specialized training.
The training has been discontinued, but the program invested about $815 million since 1999 on more than 7,000 officers in schools, said Corey Ray, a spokesman for the Community Oriented Policing Services program.
Estimates by the National Association of School Resource Officers show there were about 10,000 officers in schools before the Sandy Hook shootings, but an exact current count, with districts moving so rapidly to add police, is elusive.
These officers can, and do, save lives. When a gunman threatened Principal Melanie Riden in Blountville, Tenn., two years ago, Sullivan Central High School resource officer Carolyn Gudger trained her weapon on the man, used her body to shield the principal, lured the man away from students, and along with two officers who had arrived at the scene, killed the would-be shooter when he wouldn’t drop his weapon.
But while shootings have been the impetus for additional officers, day-to-day lives of school police—even Officer Gudger—typically involve entirely different concerns.
The officers teach classes on distracted driving and underage drinking. They direct traffic. They serve as informal counselors who build relationships with students who may share information about planned episodes of violence by classmates or bullying that they are experiencing or have witnessed.
“I’ve run into hundreds of these incidents,” said Michael S. Dorn, who runs the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety organization.
For example, he said, in 2006, a student at East High School in Green Bay, Wis., told school officials about classmates’ stash of weapons and their plot to use them at school. School resource officers followed up and found the conspirators’ collection of bombs and guns.
But not all students feel comfortable confiding in police officers, said Jasmine Jauregui, 19, of Los Angeles. She and other current and former high school students demonstrated this month outside the U.S. Capitol against federal proposals to add school police officers after Sandy Hook.
Ms. Jauregui, who graduated near the top of her class from Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Calif., said she often felt as though school police watched her and her friends too closely because they appeared to be affiliated with gangs. If she or a friend ever had a problem, they would never have sought help from a police officer for fear of being arrested.
“You can’t build peace with a piece,” she and her fellow protestors chanted, referring to officers’ weapons. Counselors are easier to talk to—and can’t arrest you, said Ms. Jauregui, who marched in an orange prison jumpsuit.
‘Up the Ante’
Over time, civil rights groups say, some school police officers have grown far too involved with discipline matters, often with bad consequences for students.
While federal data show the rate of juvenile arrests has declined nationwide, such arrests are on the rise in pockets.
A 2010 Texas report found that as schools added police, criminal citations of students at school rose. Citations were disproportionately given to black and Hispanic students.
The arrests are often for misdemeanors, “things that have no bearing on the safety of others,” said Judith Browne Dianis, a co-director of the Washington-based Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group. “The same thing [students] would get suspended for, they would get arrested for,” she said. “We started to realize schools had started to up the ante in using police and the courts to deal with school discipline matters.”
While Mr. Dorn of Safe Havens and others question whether a school-to-prison pipeline exists, Ms. Browne Dianis points to districts now acting to address that perceived link, including the 84,000-student Denver public schools.
The agreement signed last month by the district and the Denver police revamped how school police officers stationed at 15 middle and high schools should act, and how schools should work with those officers.
When it’s not absolutely necessary for officers to make an arrest or ticket students, they shouldn’t, Denver Police Chief Robert C. White said. That should always have been the case, he said, but the agreement emphasizes that point.
“Use your discretion” is the message to officers, Chief White said in an interview. “We all need to be mindful that the primary purpose of school police is to create a safe environment for student learning.”
In some past cases, officers may have been too aggressive in arresting students, Chief White said. In others, they may have felt pressured by school administrators.
Ms. Browne Dianis called the agreement—driven in part by the Denver-based parent and youth organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United)—groundbreaking and part of a larger effort in the city to address racial and ethnic discipline disparities.
In the 180,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla. school district, as part of a larger settlement over a number of issues, the Justice Department recently ordered the district not to involve school district police in any situation “that can be safely and appropriately handled by the district’s internal disciplinary procedures.”
Those situations include disorderly conduct, loitering, trespassing, profanity, dress-code violations, and fights that don’t involve physical injuries or weapons.
“We mutually agree that when the code of conduct is broken, we don’t run and call police,” said Laura Pincus, the district’s deputy general counsel.
“This does not tell the police they cannot get involved when they see a crime,” she said, but “if it can be handled administratively, handle it administratively.”
Palm Beach County was already working on changes in student-discipline practices and improving student behavior, Ms. Pincus said.
Until such changes take hold everywhere, however, school resource officers, armed guards, and other people tasked with securing schools will remain a presence on campuses nationwide, and at least in the short term, their ranks will almost certainly grow.
For districts adding officers, Ms. Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project has a plea. “We really want for school districts and communities to make a really informed decision about this, and understand there are vast consequences for young people that open up the door to the criminal-justice system for them at a very early age,” she said.
Training Is Key
Mr. Dorn of Safe Havens said he was one of those young people. Being arrested for truancy as a teenager led to an interest in law enforcement and set the stage for a career as an officer and a police chief.
He knows not every situation will turn out as his did, however. He and Mr. Canady of the resource officers’ association are firm that proper, comprehensive training is key to successful school policing—lessons far beyond what is offered in police academies.
How officers are selected is also important. In general, Mr. Canady said, they must be experienced law-enforcement personnel who are patient, relish working with young people, are good listeners, and want to be on the job.
Although some people are pushing for resource officers at every school, that isn’t necessary or financially realistic, Mr. Dorn said.
Michael Griffith, a consultant for the Education Commission of the States, estimates that it would require about 128,000 full-time officers to fulfill the NRA’s proposal, at a cost of about $12.2 billion a year.
Some parents in the 1,900-student Highland, N.Y., district are questioning the post-Newtown move to put officers in school after one officer’s gun fired in the hallway during the school day this month. The officers have been removed, at least for now.
Mr. Dorn said resource officers are not a complete answer to improving school safety.
“They are a piece—just like good mental-health programs,” he said. “And it all depends on how it’s done, and if it’s done properly.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as Downside Seen in Rush to Hire School-Based Police