School Climate & Safety

School Police Prevent Some Violence, But Not Shootings, Research Finds

Their presence also heightens discipline disparities, according to a new study
By Caitlynn Peetz — July 07, 2023 4 min read
Photo of male African-American teen walking alone.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

School-based police have been marginally successful in preventing some violence on the campuses they patrol, but their presence doesn’t prevent school shootings, and it’s linked to disproportionate discipline of boys and Black and disabled students, according to new research that largely affirms years of other studies.

The study, published earlier this week in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management by researchers from the University at Albany and the RAND Corporation, found that the presence of school resource officers had mixed results for schools and “change school environments and student outcomes in important ways.”

While the recent findings are largely unsurprising because they resemble what past research has shown, they’re relevant as schools in recent years have reassessed their relationships with police. Dozens of districts ended or shrank their school policing programs following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But some more recently have brought officers back following high-profile school shootings, and a new Texas law will require that every school have an armed security officer.

The researchers used federal data from 2014 to 2018 to evaluate the impact of school-based police, often called school resource officers, which were present at least once a week in nearly half of U.S. public schools during the 2017-18 school year. Using school-level data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, they compared schools served by local police departments whose federal grant applications to fund SROs scored just above the threshold for a successful grant with those that scored just below it.

They found that SROs can likely be credited with reducing some forms of violence in schools—like threats and physical attacks without weapons—but don’t prevent shootings. In fact, firearm-related offenses often increased after the hiring of an SRO, but that could be due to increased reporting to on-site officers, the researchers wrote.

The presence of SROs does, however, increase the use of suspension, expulsion, arrests, and referrals to police, particularly for Black students, boys, and students with disabilities, the researchers concluded.

Over the past three years, a number of districts reduced or eliminated school police in the wake of racial and social justice movements. But some districts’ reversals have come as students have returned to classrooms after widespread pandemic closures and brought more social-emotional and behavioral needs with them—and following high-profile shootings in Texas, Tennessee, and elsewhere. Even more are considering following their lead.

“I think that’s a reasonable response, wanting to do something to try and help reduce the violence that’s happening in schools and try to prevent school shootings,” said Lucy Sorensen, an associate professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany and one of the researchers who conducted the study. “But I think it’s also not necessarily tackling the roots of school violence.”

In the years studied, they found schools with SROs had similar rates of student infractions across the categories studied as schools without the officers, but significantly higher discipline rates, as well as police referral and arrest rates.

The presence of an SRO “increases the chance that behavior that would have otherwise been dealt with by the school disciplinary system is referred to the juvenile justice system,” they wrote.

The findings “makes it clear that any potential benefits in violence reduction or gun detection come at very high costs to students.”

Research has consistently found a link between the presence of police officers in schools and these discipline patterns. The disparities between white students and their non-white peers were the basis for much of the recent movement to remove officers from schools or reduce their presence.

When it comes to safety, only 25 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey said that increasing the presence of police at their schools would make them feel safer at work. More than 50 percent said the same about hiring more mental health counselors to work with students with behavioral problems.

See Also

Greeley Police Officer Steve Brown stands in the hallway during passing periods at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo. on Oct. 21, 2016. While school resource officers, like Brown, are expected to handle responsibilities like any police officer they're faced with unique challenges working day-to-day in schools
Greeley Police Officer Steve Brown stands in the hallway during passing periods at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo. While school resource officers, like Brown, are expected to handle responsibilities like any police officer, they're faced with unique challenges working day-to-day in schools.
Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune/AP
School Climate & Safety Explainer School Resource Officers (SROs), Explained
Stephen Sawchuk, November 16, 2021
13 min read

School resource officers reduce fights and attacks, but not gun offenses

The results of the most recent study give district leaders much to consider when evaluating schools’ SRO programs, the researchers concluded.

On one hand, SROs do meet some of their objectives, like reducing a “non-trivial number of” fights and attacks, which could have long-term benefits by reducing students’ exposure to violence and academic disruptions.

But on the other hand, the researchers “find no evidence that SROs reduce more serious gun-related offenses,” and their presence can lead to harsher discipline for minor infractions, which can also have long-term negative consequences, particularly for Black students and students with disabilities.

“We do see some evidence that they’re meeting some of their goals, but then we also see this series of potentially unintended consequences where they’re making the school environment more punitive,” Sorensen said.

With that in mind, Sorensen suggested that schools that do have SROs establish clear memorandums of understanding with the police agencies that tend to employ them to outline the officers’ roles. Specifically, it’s important to detail in what situations the officers are to be involved in student discipline, if at all.

“I think having that type of accountability could potentially avoid some of these disciplinary consequences we’re seeing of having SROs in schools,” Sorensen said.

See Also

A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Are School Buses Safe? An Expert Explains
A perennial concern is getting new attention.
4 min read
Photo of rescue workers and turned over school bus.
Brandy Taylor / iStock / Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety Jury Finds Michigan School Shooter’s Mother Guilty of Manslaughter
Jennifer Crumbley was accused of failing to secure a gun and ammunition at home and failing to get help for her son's mental health.
2 min read
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Feb. 5, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Jennifer Crumbley arrives in court on Feb. 5, 2024 in Pontiac, Mich.
Carlos Osorio/AP
School Climate & Safety A School Removed Bathroom Mirrors to Keep Students From Making TikToks. Will It Work?
The desperate strategy for keeping students in class illuminates the challenge schools face in competing with social media.
5 min read
Empty blue school bathroom showing the bathroom sinks without mirrors.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety Researchers Analyzed Years of Reports to a School Safety Tipline. Here's What They Learned
More than a third of gun-related tips in one state outlined possible school attacks, a new analysis finds.
4 min read
Illustration of a cellphone with a red exclamation mark inside of a word bubble.
iStock/Getty