BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - It’s one of the most unique positions in law enforcement, one in which officers are more often hailed as heroes, but criminal justice experts are split on how effective School Resource Officers can be in preventing violence.
“We really need to be thinking about - where will we get the best bang for our buck?” the Executive Director of Justice Policy Institute (JPI), Marc Schindler, tells WBRC. “Where will we get the best outcomes?”
Schindler and the JPI advocate for the placement of more counselors and social workers in schools across the country, citing their 2011 report Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools. The report compiled data showing an increased law enforcement presence can “needlessly drive up arrests” in situations that could be handled by the school’s disciplinary process.
“There are unintended consequences to having law enforcement in our schools,” said Schindler. “There is a school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects students of color.”
Last year, in Parkland, Florida, a school resource officer remained outside the building while a lone gunman killed 17 people. The debate over the SRO’s actions that day has brought more scrutiny to the job of securing large campuses.
“Usually that first part [of a mass shooting] where it gets the craziest is a very short period of time. It’s almost luck if an officer would be able to intervene,” says Dr. Jeffery Walker, an expert in Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
Dr. Walker points to other situations where SROs can be very effective in preventing school violence, but cautions they need to be properly selected and part of a law enforcement agency with a philosophy aligned with community policing.
“One philosophy is a school resource officer is there to be a mentor, to be a helper, be like a coach. Those situations tend to work out very well,” says Dr. Walker.
The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), based in Hoover, is a strong proponent of this approach. NASRO adamantly disagrees with reports by groups such as the Justice Policy Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union, and scholarly journals such as Justice Quarterly and Washington University Law Review, all of which find school administrators are more likely to refer problem behaviors or low level crimes to law enforcement if there is an officer on the campus.
“You can’t criminalize behavior. It is either criminal, or it is not,” Mo Canady, NASRO Executive Director, says. “Most SROs serve as really effective filters to arrest. We could arrest kids for disorderly conduct all day long, but what good would it do?”
Canady points to NASRO’s own research report, compiled in the wake of criticism of SROs, to defend his position that carefully selected and properly trained SROs are extremely effective at gathering intelligence and preventing violent crime. Canady notes that the SRO in Parkland, Florida, did not receive training from their association. However, in the aftermath of that massacre, multiple SROs prevented major attacks but did not receive the same publicity. At it’s annual conference in 2018, NASRO recognized two such officers, James Long of Florida, and Blaine Gaskill of Maryland.
There is no debate on either side that more counselors and social workers are desperately needed in schools.
“Many SROs are terrific, and they try to do a good job,” says Schindler. “When I talk to good ones, what they say is ‘I’m really just a social worker or a counselor.’ That’s great but what I’d rather do is use those tax dollars for someone who is trained for that position.”
“I don’t see that we have to have a debate about one or the other. We are for all of those folks helping kids,” said Canady.