Shelby Township, Mich., Deputy Chief of Police Mark Coil compares police officers who work in schools to the neighborhood cops of his grandfather and great-grandfather’s day.
“They walked the beat, and they knew Al owned the bakery and Sal owned the butcher shop, and they knew everybody well,” he said, noting that a school resource officer can fill the same community role. “He’s consistent. He’s there every day. And he knows his people because the school becomes his beat.”
Since the death of George Floyd after an arrest attempt on May 25 in Minneapolis—and the ensuing protests against police brutality nationwide—school districts across the country are considering getting rid of SROs and promising instead to spend millions of dollars on enhanced mental health services and social workers in their schools. School boards cite deteriorating relationships and a growing perception that SROs disproportionately single out minority students and stoke fear of law enforcement rather than ease it. School boards are weighing the future of in-school policing in major cities such as Denver and Los Angeles, the latter of which employs a force of about 400 SROs costing about $70 million a year.
School districts typically contract directly with their local police or sheriff’s departments for SRO services. Most try to work with a consistent officer so the school community can forge a trusting relationship with that individual. The officers provide on-site security and handle discipline issues that wander into criminal territory.
Some also serve as guest experts in classrooms, teaching on topics like drug awareness and how to practice risk avoidance. They assist students who need help reporting an assault or other incidents even if they happened outside of school. Coil said school districts work out the specifics with their individual SROs, capitalizing on their unique strengths and interests. Most importantly, he said, the officers serve as role models.
“When you have that conduit for the district and the child, and the families to point to and say, ‘That’s our guy, that’s our gal,’ that’s community outreach at its best,” Coil said.
But SROs have not always set the best examples. Last year, two were caught on video pushing a defiant high school girl to the ground in Florida and repeatedly slamming a middle school boy onto the floor in North Carolina. In 2015, parents sued an SRO in Kentucky for placing handcuffs above the elbows of an 8-year-old boy with special needs in response to a disciplinary problem.
Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told The Atlantic in 2015 that such instances usually arise from a lack of school-specific education for the officer.
“The first thing I do is search our database to see ‘Did this person come through our training?’” Canady said. “And the answer is consistently ‘no.’”
The U.S. Department of Education tracks arrests and discipline referrals in schools. The most recent data is not yet available, but an analysis of the 2013-2014 school year reveals black students consistently had disproportionately high rates of arrests at school compared with their white classmates.
Students in the Minneapolis Public Schools have lobbied for years to dissolve the urban district’s relationship with its local police department, citing ongoing concerns about racial bias and profiling. Minneapolis Board of Education Chairwoman Kim Ellison credited persistent pressure from students for keeping the issue at the forefront. The board passed a resolution on June 2 canceling a $1 million contract between the school district and police department for 11 officers. It also charged the district superintendent with developing an alternate school safety plan by mid-August.
Portland, Ore., has wrestled over the presence of officers in its schools for years. Like Minneapolis, an already swelling student-led campaign crested with last week’s decision by the local school district to cut ties with the Portland Police Bureau.
Some of the city’s residents immediately raised concerns the move would leave schools vulnerable in the event of a violent act that required swift action to defuse. In May 2019 a quick-thinking SRO rushed and tackled a suicidal student who pulled a shotgun out from under his trench coat at one of the city’s schools. The incident developed in mere seconds—far too short of a time for local law enforcement to respond.
Canady called school districts’ breaks with police “a knee-jerk reaction” last week and cautioned that if they develop into a trend, it will be to the detriment of many communities.
“When it’s done right, the SRO program really is the epitome of community-based policing,” he said. “I hate to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater.”