School Climate & Safety

Where’s the Threat? School Resource Officers’ Views Differ Based on District Racial Makeup

By Christina A. Samuels — June 12, 2020 3 min read
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School resource officers view their jobs differently, depending on how diverse the students are in the districts they serve, some new research suggests.

In interviews, school resource officers in a largely white and affluent school district said they saw their role as protecting the students from outside threats, such as school shooters, and dealing with student behavior like sexting.

But their counterparts in an urban district with a higher representation of black and Hispanic students, saw threats as coming from a different source—the students themselves, who “create chaos” and create a tense and nearly unmanageable atmosphere.

The findings come from a report that will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Social Problems, said Ben Fisher, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisville who specializes in studying school safety, security, and discipline. Though the paper has not been published online, Fisher co-authored a piece on the website The Conversation, advocating for a more critical evaluation of police in schools. He also shared a portion of the work on Twitter.

This difference in perception has particular relevance as school districts around the country reconsider their use of school resource officers in the wake of the recent widespread protests for racial justice. Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, Ore., and West Contra Costa, Calif., schools have recently voted to either end their relationships with local police, or phase them out.

The kind of subtle bias expressed in the interviews with police officers—race of students was seldom mentioned—can nevertheless have negative impacts on black students. Instead of referring to race, the officers used words that are often coded for race. (The officers themselves in this researcher were all white and nearly all male.)

For example, the urban district—50 percent white, 40 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic—was filled with students described as lacking “a good upbringing” and being “out of control.” School shooters were a possibility, said those school resource officers, “but on a day-to-day basis, that’s not [an] imminent threat,” one officer said.

In contrast, in the suburban, predominantly white district, where fewer than half of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch, officers said that because students were well off, there were no problems with theft. Even though the resource officers spoke of drug possession and sales in the middle and high schools, the student-based threats they spoke of centered around cyberbullying. Police spent much of their time explaining to staff the importance of keeping exterior doors closed, another indication of how they saw threats as coming from outside the school, the researchers said.

The juvenile arrest rates in both counties were similiar, which suggests that school officers were not responding to a large disparity in crimes committed by youth in the two communities, Fisher said. And the differences in perceptions remained even when taking away the views of school resource officers based in elementary schools, who would presumably see younger students as less of a problem to school safety.

The takeaway for school leaders is to rethink the purpose of school discipline, Fisher said. Removing school officers and replacing them with a private security force, for example, could just replicate some of the same problems.

"[School resource officers] are part of a bigger approach to school discipline and about controlling student behavior,” Fisher said. “I feel like the folks who are talking about restorative practices are really onto something. That includes the way teachers talk to students and teaching social-emotional skills. We can reconsider what school discipline means.”

Photo: Demonstrators shout slogans during a student-led protest for racial justice in Culver City, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.