Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools Have Put Their Money on Security Officers. Is That Smart?

The arguments over school security measures distract from a better approach
By David S. Knight — August 11, 2022 5 min read
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The mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, has once again led some policymakers to call for investing in school-based security and law enforcement. This despite the significant investments already made that have brought no reduction in the pace or devastation of school shootings.

Just as important, increased spending on security is coming at the expense of investments in school counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists. Policymakers are thus continuing to trade security for mental health and social services, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The problem grows even more acute in the absence of sensible gun legislation. The investigation into Uvalde helped clarify that school security alone is unlikely to prevent school shootings. But if lawmakers fail to tackle gun reform, schools will likely face even more pressure to increase spending for both law enforcement and mental health supports.

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As a school finance researcher, I study resource tradeoffs and the extent to which district leaders’ budget-allocation decisions promote effective and equitable spending. A common refrain I hear is that the public does not know how schools spend money. Yet publicly available data make it possible to look up how much any public school district spends on security and how that’s changed over time. Schools report all this information through dashboards and downloadable data sets.

Over the past two decades, the data show that districts have spent increasing shares of their budgets on security—school resource officers, security guards, metal detectors, and camera systems. (A school resource officer is a sworn and often armed law-enforcement officer who, in theory, has special training to work with youth.) Our research has found, for example, that since 1999-2000, school districts in Texas have doubled funds allocated to school security. During that school year, Texas spent $254 million, about $64 per student, on security, in inflation-adjusted terms. By 2020-21, Texas school districts spent a total of $665 million or $124 per pupil.

The numbers look similar when we use a three-year average and omit the pandemic years when many schools were closed. For the typical district in Texas, spending on school security now represents 11.6 percent of spending on student-support services, or about 1.1 percent of total district spending, up from 7 percent in 1999-2000 or 0.6 percent of total district spending. Over this same period, the proportion of the budget going to guidance counseling and social work services remained flat, while the proportion spent on community services declined.

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This trend is not just in Texas. Studies show schools are hiring more law-enforcement and security officers. Districts also assign a greater number of those personnel to their higher-poverty schools and their schools serving greater proportions of students of color. A report from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office found that 42 percent of high schools have at least one school resource officer, and 1.6 million students attend a school with a police officer but not a school counselor.

Using the same data, our research found that the typical high school employs the full-time equivalent of 1.75 law-enforcement or security officers, compared with 0.4 social workers, 0.6 nurses, and 0.4 psychologists. Looking within school districts, we found 18 percent greater full-time-equivalent security officers in schools serving high percentages of Black students compared with schools with high percentages of white students. Districts also place a disproportionately greater number of security officers in their schools serving greater shares of Latinx and low-income students, though differences are not as large. While people have argued that some schools need more officers because they have higher levels of student misbehavior, few people would support policies that expand the number of untrained school resource officers in schools. Unfortunately, with rapid increases in school security spending and staffing, schools are more likely to hire inexperienced or undertrained school resource officers.

One of the resounding messages from communities impacted by school shootings is the call for policymakers to do something. However, in the rush to “do something,” policymakers often lean on schools alone to solve broad policy problems, such as gun violence. After the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., where 20 1st graders and six adults were murdered, Texas enacted a “school marshal” program allowing districts to arm their teachers. Data show this policy is unpopular among educators, with few districts opting into the program. Other GOP-led states passed similar legislation, opening the door for greater spending on school security to the detriment of competing school priorities.

In the rush to 'do something,' policymakers often lean on schools alone to solve broad policy problems, such as gun violence.

Some members of Congress want to require school districts to beef up school security by reallocating funds intended to address learning disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. As lawmakers respond to calls for action, advocates must not let increases in school security spending serve as a distraction from gun reform. Although recent federal legislation expands background checks for gun buyers and closes some loopholes, the new law does not include regulations supported by major gun-safety groups. Everytown for Gun Safety, a nationwide advocacy organization, has called for universal background checks, waiting periods, concealed-carry restrictions, and red-flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others. Most Americans support these reforms. Such changes would likely save far more lives than increasing the number of police in schools.

Further, increases in school security spending potentially crowd out other educational investments. All school spending represents the choice of one type of expenditure over another, and a school district’s budget should reflect the shared values of the community it serves. Money that goes into school security could be used for early-childhood education, after-school programs, and music and art education, as well as student mental health.

As advocates call for legislative action that moves beyond “thoughts and prayers,” education leaders and policymakers must ensure that changes to education policies do more than distract from gun-regulation stalemates. Changes made in the name of security need to be effective, and they need to serve the best interests of communities.

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