Don Bridges moved from his native Alabama to Maryland 30 years ago to become a police officer. He was the first in his family to embark on a law enforcement career, and soon after moving to Baltimore County, he knew something had to change.
“As soon as I got here, I grew very, very tired of seeing young men of color being incarcerated,” Bridges says. “Working with youth became my passion, and what better way to do that than by working in schools?”
Bridges jumped at the chance to become a school resource officer (SRO), and for more than two decades he has trained others in his field across the U.S. He believes law enforcement can help make schools safer and more secure as long as SROs are carefully selected and receive the right training.
“As an SRO, there’s nothing more powerful than when a parent drops their child off, and they say, ‘Take care of my baby.’ That’s the ultimate sign of respect for what this program is,” he says.
For more than two decades, that promise of safety has led to a heightened presence of police working on school grounds. But school boards, which have supported a wide variety of often expensive security measures to prevent on-campus shootings and acts of violence, are rethinking their relationships with local law enforcement in the wake of worldwide protests against police brutality.
The protests, which followed the May killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, are not the only reason these relationships are being reconsidered. Some boards are concerned that a police presence on campus fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. Others, already facing financial constraints in the pandemic’s wake, are weighing the cost of security against the need for nurses, counselors, and school psychologists.
“This is not something that just happened overnight,” says Deborah Kilgore, board president for the Edmonds School District in Washington state, which pulled out of its program with three municipalities in June. “Over the last few years, many people have come out and said there are better ways to approach security. They don’t want police in our schools. We could not ignore those voices anymore.”
More training needed
More than half of all the nation’s schools have sworn law enforcement officers on campus at least once a week, according to a July 2019 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. The number rises to more than 70 percent of high schools and 45 percent of middle schools. A 2018 American Civil Liberties Union report says 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.
Meanwhile, although research on the effectiveness of SRO programs is scant, emerging data is showing that increased security could make schools less conducive to learning, especially for minority youth.
Chris Curran, an associate professor and co-director of the University of Florida’s Policy Research Center, says having SROs in schools “tends to” increase the number of arrests for minor offenses and results in “more exclusionary discipline practices,” especially among Black and minority children.
One reason this occurs, Curran says, is because about one-third of schools do not officially outline the officer’s roles and responsibilities while on campus. Among those that do, only about half have policies that outline when officers should make arrests, use physical force, or be part of discipline.
“When an SRO gets involved in places where we don’t want them to be, part of the reason they are there is because of the school context they are set in,” Curran says. “In some cases, the principal is very clear to staff and parents and says the SRO is not there to discipline or police students’ behavior. In other schools, the context looks very different. The SRO knows about everything that happens in the school. It may not be actively communicated to teachers that they should not call the SRO to deal with classroom management issues.”
The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) has a 40-hour basic training module on adolescent mindsets, childhood trauma, and implicit bias, among other things. But the professional development is not mandatory, and that’s a problem, says psychologist and University of North Carolina education professor Dorothy Espelage.
Espelage says all SROs should receive the NASRO training “at a minimum” as well as ongoing professional development. She believes the fact that officers can be placed in schools without training in implicit bias and how to work with children living in and dealing with trauma is “a big deal.”
“When you combine cops on every campus with the fact that you can handcuff a 7-year-old having a temper tantrum, the school-to-prison pipeline is only being supported,” Espelage says. “They don’t necessarily understand children and trauma, and they don’t have to adhere to what other professionals in the school building have to do. Teachers and administrators have to take part in professional development, and [SROs] should be receiving training beyond having to deal with escalation or how to deal with mass shootings.”
Bridges, a former NASRO president, agrees.
“This position requires so much,” he says. “An effective SRO program is community policing at its fullest level. It is the most challenging position within all of law enforcement, and it requires so much more than the average cop on the street.”
‘A huge show of force'
Kilgore joined the Edmonds school board in 2017 as it looked to reinstitute its SRO program. Finances had forced the 21,000-student district and the three municipalities, which share the cost, to eliminate the program in all but one school following the 2008 recession.
“I was involved in each of those votes the first month I was on the board, and there was an assumption that SROs were the way we wanted to go,” Kilgore says. “The feeling was that it had been there, and they had been removed because of money, and we had the money to do it again.”
The board reinstated the program despite concerns from community members, students, and staff. Kilgore says some of the board’s newer members “expressed concerns that this may not be the best way to go, but we couldn’t see anything else.”
“Our heads just weren’t there to see another way to provide security against the tragic outside threat of a school shooting,” she says.
Karl Sonneman knew there was another way. A public defender handling juvenile cases across southeastern Minnesota, he was elected in 2019 to the board for the Winona Area Public Schools, a 2,600-student district 115 miles southeast of Minneapolis.
After George Floyd’s death, Sonneman started reviewing the contract between the district and the Winona Police Department and found it to be outdated. He spoke with community members who did not believe an armed officer should be on campus and later made the motion to discontinue the program. A majority of the board supported the motion, and now the district is looking for alternatives.
“The contract we had said that schools are under threat and that a police presence is necessary to bring order back to the school,” Sonneman says. “I don’t think that’s true in Winona. We need to maintain order, and we need personnel in schools whose primary concern is safety, but they are safety officers and not law enforcement.”
Sonneman says he believes schools “try to do too much through the discipline system,” noting teachers rely on the presence of law enforcement to keep order.
“I started asking, ‘How often does a crime take place at school in a district our size? Is it a discipline issue that gets treated as a crime?’ In my experience, it’s almost always something that’s broken down, usually a child who is totally frustrated with something, and when you have an SRO, school personnel stop believing they can handle it and call in the police,” Sonneman says. “It’s a huge show of force that is rarely necessary.”
In Portland, Maine, the school board voted to end its contract with the police department after working for more than a year on the memorandum of understanding, chairman Roberto Rodriguez says. Discussions started when the police department announced plans to have all officers—including SROs—wear body cameras while on the job. This raised concerns about violating students’ privacy expectations. It soon became a discussion about the effectiveness of school-based policing.
Talks continued throughout the winter and spring and intensified following Floyd’s death, when petitioners gathered more than 1,000 signatures urging the 6,700-student district to eliminate the program. Soon after, the board terminated the contract.
“One of our concerns is that there is a lack of statewide guidance on how these programs are implemented,” Rodriguez says, citing research from the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy that shows little evidence school policing in Maine significantly reduces violence or improves safety. “There are a lot of inconsistencies, not just in how the programs are deployed in districts, but in what the community is expecting the role of the SRO to be. We needed to step away from the program.”
In all three districts—Edmonds, Portland, and Winona—the boards are now looking at how to redefine their relationships with law enforcement. To varying degrees, that is also the case in other districts across the U.S.
Make things right
Bridges and Mo Canady, NASRO’s executive director, know school resource officers can be successful. They know training works. They know a community policing model, which they describe the SRO’s role as, works as well. They also know the death of George Floyd and others who fueled the Black Lives Matter protests will only continue to bring more scrutiny to the work they do.
Canady, who says all the districts that have terminated their programs did not participate in NASRO training, believes school boards are “putting student safety at jeopardy” when they remove a law enforcement presence from campuses. He also says arrests could go up in districts that don’t have an SRO and then call police when incidents occur.
“An SRO arresting kids left and right all day is not a true SRO because they are not fitting the definition of community policing. When you’re doing this work correctly, you’re reducing arrests, not increasing them,” Canady says.
NASRO, along with several national education groups, released recommendations in early August for schools that are considering another look at their agreements with local law enforcement. Among them: Principals should interview potential SROs before they’re assigned to campuses; training should be required on specific issues in the school environment, such as adolescent brain development, implicit bias, and building relationships with all students; and a clear separation between the SROs role and school discipline should be established.
Bridges, who is Black, says he believes a uniformed officer can be a “comfort zone” for all students as long as the SRO understands the job is about community first and arrests “only as a last resort.”
“Safety starts when you develop a relationship with all parties,” he says. “Where we struggle a lot of times is when we fail to understand the magnitude of the job. When you have the power of the laws of arrest, that’s a lot of power. Recognizing that and knowing the history of various groups in this country when it comes to race should encourage any person taking the oath to go the extra mile, to go everywhere within the sphere of influence to make things right.”
The opportunity to make things right, especially at a time of such uncertainty, is what has helped drive Kilgore and the rest of the board to make the change in Edmonds.
“This was a perfect opportunity for us to reassess the purpose of the SRO and how we utilize them, but I think everything that has happened over these past few months is a much deeper discussion than just SROs,” Kilgore says. “The pandemic and civil unrest have been shocks to our system, but they present us with a chance to think differently about how we do things on a much larger scale. Education is really slow to change, but maybe it won’t be so much anymore.”