If you enter almost any large inner-city school in America, you will likely see a police presence. Not because there was a disturbance, but because that is simply where they have been assigned. This is of course in reference to School Resource Officers.
School resource officers or SROs have recently come under a lot of fire. Conversations around police brutality have given way to conversations about interactions between police and students at schools, and there is no shortage of incidents to highlight. The national conversation started in 2015 after the spread of a viral video in which a police officer flipped a student out of her desk after she initially refused to surrender her cell phone to the teacher. Fast forward to today, when surveillance cameras recently caught officers dragging a 16-year-old student down the steps and using a stun gun… again all stemming from a cell-phone.
Such interactions have led people to question whether or not police officers should be in schools. That question is valid especially when you consider the fact that they don’t always actually prevent crime, as was the case when an ineffective school police officer ran and hid during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, as a shooter gunned down students on his watch. However, whether or not schools should have SROs really isn’t the right question. The real question should be around the way they are used:
“Why are school resource officers being used as classroom managers?”
The United States Department of Justice defines School Resource Officers as “sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.” Why are these officers being called every time a student refuses to hand over a cell phone?
Why are we surprised that police officers aren’t equipped to the everyday nuance of minor behavior issues? There is an old quote that says something along the lines of: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.” This quote sums up the problem with SROs. They in most cases aren’t trained or equipped to handle minor behavior problems because they are supposed to be there specifically to handle the big ones.
You know who is supposed to be trained and equipped to deal with student behavior? Teachers and administrators. And in schools where no school resource officers are present, that is who handles it. My school does not have an SRO. Like many other schools, we have a ban on cellphones in class. On average I catch about 3 students breaking this rule a day. At least once a week one of them refuses to hand it over. When I child refuses to comply with directions there is a lot of steps I can take. Those interventions do not include calling the police or flipping them out of their desk.
In schools where SROs are present, teachers and admin often feel the pressure to use them. Even in situations that don’t call for it. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t call the SRO for a situation that you wouldn’t normally call the police:
Drugs? Yes. Big fights? Yes. Gang activity? Yes.
Disrespect? No. Sleeping in class? No. Cell phone refusal? No.
In my 8 years of experience, I have seen incidents in which a school resource officer was probably needed and having the right person in uniform walking around the school could be a net positive. But if schools are going to continue to get the wrong people for the job and use them in the wrong way, then we should probably talk about the use of school resource officers in general. Especially considering how their misuse disproportionately impacts black and brown students given their placement in inner city schools. We should also talk about better training for people who are going to be in schools dealing with children.
But as of today, school resource officers are here and are trained as officers, and as long as we are using officers in schools then we need to make sure we are using them right… which is sparingly.