Teachers have mixed feelings about school resource officers, and whether their presence makes schools feel safer.
Some see SROs as direct threats to students of color and those with disabilities who data show are disproportionately disciplined or arrested at school compared to their peers. Others see police in schools as necessary for keeping serious student misbehavior in check. Some point to SROs as being trusted adults who can serve as mentors to students.
In other words, the debate over police in schools is far from settled. Education Week spoke to three educators who each have their own perspectives on whether SROs belong in schools.
Here’s what they had to say.
Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers: Districts should divert SRO funds to investing in holistic student supports
In June 2020, the Minneapolis school district severed ties with the Minneapolis Police Department—which provided SROs to the district—after the murder of George Floyd by then-police officer Derek Chauvin. Soon after, the district expanded its emergency management, safety and security department by increasing the number of EMSS specialists from 2 to 15, according to Crystina Lugo-Beach, Media Relations Coordinator for Minneapolis schools.
“These specialists are assigned to a group of schools and focus on prevention, getting to know the staff and students, and learning the individual needs of each school site,” Lugo-Beach said. “They are not armed, nor do they carry handcuffs or pepper spray.”
The president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Greta Callahan, said the union has been fighting for a long time to get police officers out of schools, but even with SROs gone, the district has not provided supports teachers have asked for, such as smaller class sizes, more counselors and social workers, more licensed school psychologists, and full-time nurses in every building. All of those additions will help make schools safer, so that there is no need for police at schools, Callahan said.
When the district added the safety officers, union members opposed the expansion. Callahan called the hiring of EMSS specialists as a replacement for SROs “a huge mistake.”
“Our students across the country, especially right now, desperately need more support. One way to do that is to have cops in schools, and that’s not the kind of support we as teachers want for our kids,” she said.
“We want them to be actually supported from the ground up, not in a reactive situation when something bad happens.”
Callahan said the presence of school resource officers made some of her students, most of whom are Black, nervous. They were fearful of passing SROs while walking down school hallways, she said.
“This is not about an individual, this is about a system, and our kids deserve better than that system,” she said.
Marwa Elmasry, bilingual teacher in Illinois: SROs can be trusted when they are approachable
Marwa Elmasry is a bilingual teacher at Oak Lawn Community High School in Oak Lawn, Illinois.
When she was growing up in Egypt she was told by her family and community to avoid the police, because there is an overall culture of fearing law enforcement.
When she moved to the U.S. about 20 years ago, she didn’t feel comfortable with police being in schools, she said.
(In 2011, thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo to protest police brutality. Elmasry was in the U.S. at the time, but her family was still in Egypt.)
“I learned from my years living in Egypt, that once you see a police officer, you go the other way,” Elmasry said.
“I approached [the school resource officer] and said, ‘I think we need to work together,’ because probably that is the exact same feeling with all the newcomers from Arabic countries.”
Six percent of the almost 1,000 students at the high school are Arabic speakers, Elmasry said. Illinois has about 150,000 Arab Americans, a lot of whom immigrated to the state over the last two decades, according to the Arab American Institute.
At her request, the school resource officer talked to her students about his role, and common types of crimes schools can deal with. His presentation also included tips for students on how to protect themselves against cyberbullying, and what to do if they’re pulled over for a traffic stop, she said.
Elmasry said the SRO’s talk with students helped them see a different perspective on school police. They also started to think that the SRO was approachable, she said.
There were hoax active shooter threats made across several Illinois high schools this April, and Oak Lawn went into a lockdown after a male caller pretended to be inside the school, threatening to shoot.
The SRO coordinated with the FBI to report the threats, and his presence in the school building made Elmasry feel safer during that incident, she said.
Ashley Kannan, middle school history teacher in Illinois: Teachers should think differently about school discipline in the absence of SROs
The Oak Park district in Illinois removed its two school resource officers from campuses in July 2020, after students, parents, and community members expressed concerns about the effect of having armed police officers on the schools’ culture and climate, according to a July 2020 statement by the board.
The district did not replace them with any security personnel, according to Amanda Siegfried, a spokesperson for the district.
Ashley Kannan, the co-chair of the history department at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, said the removal of SROs has forced teachers to start paying more attention to student behaviors, and start supporting students when they seem to be struggling, instead of just referring them to administrators or defaulting to SROs to handle student behavior that would warrant discipline.
“It’s forced teachers to acknowledge that we are kind of the first line in terms of interacting with students, in terms of seeing where students’ moods may be, where student anger may be,” Kannan said.
Students’ experiences in school often vary based on their race or socioeconomic status, Kannan said. If a student is struggling because of a challenge in their lives, teachers need to play a more active role in personalizing instruction instead of resorting to discipline referrals, he said.
In his classroom, Kannan uses an individualized instruction approach to make sure he knows how all his students are doing, both academically and in terms of their well being. He meets with each student weekly, and uses individual Google Docs for assignments so he can monitor their progress. If they fall behind on their work, he asks if they’re struggling with something and offers help if he can, he said.
By building that trust, he believes his students feel confident coming to him with any potential issues with other students or their safety, that would’ve warranted an SRO’s involvement previously.
“Even if you bring back SROs, it’s not going to change the fact that the absence of SROs has revealed a fundamental reality that ... our approach to education as a structure has advantaged some and disadvantaged others,” he said.
“Anytime you are forcing re-evaluation of a system that may not have served the needs of everyone, and that may have inadvertently or deliberately targeted the most vulnerable, re-evaluating that can’t be a bad thing.”