Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 6.2: COP in Schools
Assigning Police Officers to Schools
Police agencies have long provided services to schools. It has only been in the past two decades, however, that assigning police officers to schools on a full-time basis has become a widespread practice. An estimated one-third of all sheriffs’ offices and almost half of all municipal police departments assign nearly 17,000 sworn officers to serve in schools. Moreover, nearly half of all public schools have assigned police officers. These officers are commonly referred to as school resource officers (SROs) or education resource officers. They are intended to serve various roles: safety expert and law enforcer, problem solver and liaison to community resources, and educator. Assigning officers to schools is becoming increasingly popular. SRO programs have been encouraged through federal funding support to local jurisdictions. As the trend toward having police in schools grows, it is important to understand when and how assigning police officers to schools can be an appropriate strategy for schools and police agencies.
This guide summarizes the typical duties of SROs, synthesizes the research pertaining to their effectiveness, and presents issues for communities to bear in mind when considering the adoption of an SRO model. It will be apparent that despite their popularity, few systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of SROs exist. This is a concern as evidence from evaluative research can usefully inform future SRO programs. Consequently, this guide identifies the type of data that can be collected in order to measure program effectiveness. This guide does not provide a history of SRO programs nor does it describe in detail the myriad types of SRO models currently available. Similarly, although this guide highlights specific issues that communities considering the implementation of SRO programs should bear in mind (such as the legal issues that apply to police officers in schools), it is not an authoritative guide to the legal or other special issues that must be addressed with such programs. The guide does however provide additional resources for readers who wish to research these issues.
This guide should benefit the many stakeholders responsible for school safety: police, school officials, community members, students, teachers, and elected officials. It will be of particular interest to police and school administrators who are deciding whether to establish an SRO program and to those seeking to manage an existing program. Finally, the discussion is intended to provide guidance to community members and others who are interested in working with police and schools to improve public safety.
Common Roles for School Resource Officers
Officers in schools provide a wide array of services. Although their duties can vary considerably from community to community, the three most typical roles of SROs are safety expert and law enforcer, problem solver and liaison to community resources, and educator.
Safety Expert and Law Enforcer
As sworn police officers, SROs play a unique role in preserving order and promoting safety on campus by, for example:
- Assuming primary responsibility for handling calls for service from the school and in coordinating the response of other police resources
- Addressing crime and disorder problems, gangs, and drug activities occurring in or around the school
- Making arrests and issuing citations on campus
- Providing leads and information to the appropriate investigative units
- Taking action against unauthorized persons on school property
- Serving as hall monitors, crossing guards, and operators of metal detectors and other security devices
- Responding to off-campus criminal mischief that involves students
- Serving as liaisons between the school and the police and providing information to students and school personnel about law enforcement matters.
Beyond serving in a crime prevention and response role, SROs are likely to serve as first responders in the event of critical incidents at schools, such as accidents, fires, explosions, and other life threatening events. In addition, SROs often support advance planning for managing crises, including assisting with:
- Developing incident response systems
- Developing and coordinating emergency response plans (in conjunction with other emergency responders)
- Incorporating law enforcement onto school crisis management teams
- Developing protocols for handling specific types of emergencies
- Rehearsing such protocols using tabletop exercises, drills, and mock evacuations and lockdowns.
Problem Solver and Liaison to Community Resources
In the school setting, problem solving involves coordinated efforts among administrators, teachers, students, parents, mental health professionals, and community-based stakeholders. SROs frequently assist in resolving problems that are not necessarily law violations, such as bullying or disorderly behavior, but which are nonetheless safety issues that can result in or contribute to criminal incidents. Helping resolve these problems frequently requires the officer to act as a resource liaison, referring students to professional services within both the school (guidance counselors, social workers) and the community (youth and family service organizations). In particular, SROs often build relationships with juvenile justice counselors, who are responsible for supervising delinquent youths, connecting them with needed services, and recommending diversionary activities.
Problem-solving activities commonly include:
- Developing and expanding crime prevention efforts for students
- Developing and expanding community justice initiatives for students
- Assisting in identifying environmental changes that can reduce crime in or around schools
- Assisting in developing school policies that address crime and recommending procedural changes to implement those policies.
A police officer can serve as a resource for classroom presentations that complement the educational curriculum by emphasizing the fundamental principles and skills needed for responsible citizenship, as well as by teaching topics related to policing.7 SROs can present courses for students, faculty, and parents. Although SROs teach a variety of classes, there is no research indicating which classes are most useful or how to ensure an officer’s effectiveness in the teaching role. Topics commonly covered in an SRO curriculum include:
- Policing as a career
- Criminal investigation
- Alcohol and drug awareness
- Gang and stranger awareness and resistance
- General crime prevention
- Conflict resolution
- Restorative justice
- Babysitting safety
- Bicycling, pedestrian, and motor vehicle safety
- Special crimes in which students are especially likely to be offenders or victims, such as vandalism, shoplifting, and sexual assault by acquaintances.
The above describes the various services provided by SROs. Although there is considerable diversity in the structure of programs and the specific activities of SROs, surveys find that most officers spend at least half their time engaging in law enforcement activities. Over half of SROs advise staff, students, and families, spending about a quarter of their time in this way, and one-half of SROs engage in teaching, on average for about five hours per week. Six to seven SRO hours per week are typically devoted to other activities.
he variety of program structures and activities can lead to confusion about what individual programs are meant to accomplish and how to assess and measure their effectiveness. In particular, school and police officials often conceptualize the role of the SRO differently. Although school officials tend to view SROs as first responders, SROs themselves often view their roles more broadly, giving greater weight to job functions that represent an expansion of the traditional security officer role.10 For instance, more police than principals report that SROs did more than maintain order. Police also report significantly more teaching activity than do principals.
What We Know about the Effectiveness of Assigning Police Officers to Schools
Despite their popularity, few studies are available which have reliably evaluated the effectiveness of SROs. Addressing this is important in order to inform future SRO programs and to improve our understanding on how to maximize effectiveness with limited resources. Ideally, research should attempt to match the goals of a specific program with its outcomes to see if the program is achieving what it is intended to and through what mechanisms. In the case of school resource officers, the types of benefits that school administrators seek from having police officers working in their schools include:
- Increased safety in and around the schools
- Increased perceptions of safety
- Improved police call response times
- Reductions in truancy
- Fewer distractions from their teachers’ teaching and class preparation duties.
Most existing SRO research does not tell us if these hoped-for benefits are achieved. SRO research tends to be descriptive in nature—it characterizes what SROs do on a daily basis, typical traits of SROs, and the perceptions of people involved with SRO programs.
It also often addresses satisfaction with the program. Many school administrators and parents express satisfaction with their SRO programs, even in instances where there was initial resistance to the idea of placing police officers in schools.
School administrator, teacher, and parent satisfaction is one measure of the value of an SRO program. However, given the investment that communities and the federal government have made in hiring, training, and maintaining a police presence in schools, it is important to combine such assessments with reliable impact evaluations to establish program effectiveness. More outcome-focused research is needed to establish whether (and how) SROs are effective in reducing crime and disorder; that is, whether they make schools safer.
Changes in Crime and Violence
Program evaluation is essential to determining whether a program is effective, to improving programming, and to gaining continued funding. However, numerous research studies note that SRO programs should do more to collect important process and outcome evaluation data. Most participating police chiefs indicate no formal evaluation systems in place, and few SRO programs participate in independent evaluations that assess whether program goals have been met.
Studies of SRO effectiveness that have measured actual safety outcomes have mixed results. Some show an improvement in safety and a reduction in crime; others show no change. Typically, studies that report positive results from SRO programs rely on participants’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the program rather than on objective evidence. Other studies fail to isolate incidents of crime and violence, so it is impossible to know whether the positive results stem from the presence of SROs or are the result of other factors. More studies would be helpful, particularly research to understand the circumstances under which SRO programs are most likely to be successful.
There is research that suggests that although SRO programs do not significantly impact youth criminality, the presence of an officer nonetheless can enhance school safety. For example, the presence of SROs may deter aggressive behaviors including student fighting, threats, and bullying, and may make it easier for school administrators to maintain order in the school, address disorderly behavior in a timely fashion, and limit the time spent on disciplinary matters.16 Again, these are usually self-reported measures. The difficulty with self-reporting is that outcomes are speculative. It would be more useful to see data that compare the frequency of the activities at issue both before and after the tenure of the SRO; for such data to be compelling, any changes would have to be attributable only to the presence of the SRO and not to other factors.
Deciding Whether and How to Assign Police Officers to Schools
Tackling problems in schools does not have to result in the initiation of school resource officer programs. Through targeted problem solving efforts, some of the problems that police can reduce include graffiti, theft from lockers, bullying in schools, and truancy.
Before deciding whether to assign police officers to schools, you should develop a clear picture of the specific safety concerns at issue; it is this understanding that will help you determine which responses are appropriate and how to focus available funds and resources.
Be Specific – Understand Your School’s Safety Needs
Schools are generally safe, although this varies widely by location and some form of crime and violence can and does occur in nearly all schools. The nature of crime and violence varies by school type—whether urban or rural, small or large. An effective safety plan depends on the school’s specific public safety needs.
As with the United Kingdom’s Safer Schools Partnership, research on school violence in the United States indicates that effective school safety efforts require “a holistic approach that involves collaboration and partnership among schools, families, and community agencies.” Thus, a safety planning team should include administrators, teachers and other school staff, parents, students, and community members.
Safety plans should take into account factors that relate to disorder in schools, including location, community characteristics, demographics, and the physical, social, and academic environment of the school. In addition, plans should include short and long term responses to school safety; police should be involved in both. Although police are an important component of an overall safety plan, they should not be the only component. Similarly, the SRO is but one way for police to impact school safety. Stakeholders need to decide what will work best in any given situation.
Use Data Smartly
The planning team first needs to collect data about school safety, which will clarify and strengthen the team’s observations. Data collection should include a review of all aspects of the school security environment: persistent crime and disorder issues; physical and environmental considerations; threat assessments; and disaster planning. There are a variety of ways such data can be collected and assessed, including through statistical analysis of school disciplinary statistics and community crime and violence data, community forums, surveys, and interviews with key informants.
Types of information you might use include the following:
- School data: incident reports, disciplinary reports and referrals, and suspension and attendance records
- Police data, including field contacts, calls for service, and crime and arrest reports
- Student, school staff, and parent surveys
- Community crime and violence data
- Benchmark to other schools like yours.
A note on data: more comprehensive data such as described above are important for a planning team who needs a full picture of school safety issues. To address specific problems, police should pinpoint the exact nature of the problems through these kinds of data:
- Location: cafeterias, hallways, outside
- Time of day
- Age groups
- Types of behavior.
It is also helpful to map out safety issues to obtain a visual picture of patterns and trends.
Develop Safety Goals
Once the school’s safety needs are understood, specific safety goals must be established. These should pertain directly to the needs of the school and be specific enough to address the issues at hand. For instance, a goal of reducing the total amount of crime at the school is probably too broad to be useful in developing meaningful strategies. Instead, the planning team should focus on specific types of criminal or disorderly activity. Responses should then be selected and tailored to tackle these specific problems in the specific contexts.
Local implementers of SRO programs need to better link their activities to school safety goals. Currently, most SRO programs are not instituted because of specific safety needs. Instead, one large survey found that most school principals reported starting an SRO program because of national media attention on school safety whereas most police chiefs gave the availability of grant funding as their reason for assigning SROs.34 Although media attention and the availability of grant funds might indicate a general school safety concern, they do not provide specifics as to safety needs in a particular school. In order to determine whether resources are being used effectively, a clear understanding of safety needs is necessary.
Depending on circumstance, some schools may not require SROs. It’s important to justify the implementation of an SRO in response to a thorough analysis of the problem(s) a school is facing. Then resources can be distributed accordingly; it may be better to focus on assigning a few SROs to schools with chronic problems than to evenly distribute SROs among all schools thereby targeting some schools that have no problems whatsoever.
Source: COPS Office. Assigning Police Officers to Schools.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/13/2019
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.