Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Do school resource officers make schools safer? What the evidence says

Chatting with coworkers
Officer Mohamed Abdullahi (right) chats with Minneapolis police school resource officer Victor Mills (left) and youth resource coordinator Rick Maas before patrolling in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

More Minnesota school districts are without school resource officers after police departments in Apple Valley, Maple Grove and White Bear Lake have pulled them.

A change in state law — which deals with the types of physical restraints that can be used on students — has led about 40 law agencies to suspend their school resource officer programs. The sparring over the law brings to mind questions about the role and effectiveness of police officers in schools.

For more, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with James Densley. He is a professor and department chair of criminal justice at Metro State University.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: More school districts are without school resource officers after the police departments in Apple Valley, Maple Grove, and White Bear Lake have pulled them. A change in state law which deals with the types of physical restraints that can be used on students has led about 40 law agencies to suspend their school resource officer programs.

Yesterday, Republican State lawmakers called for hearings on the issue. Governor Tim Walz says Attorney General Keith Ellison will release another opinion on the law, and he says he's also open to a special legislative session if necessary and if lawmakers can agree on what needs to be done.

The sparring over this new law brings to mind questions about the role and effectiveness of police officers in schools. For more on that, James Densley is with us. He's a professor and department chair of criminal justice at Metro State University. Professor, welcome.

JAMES DENSLEY: Thank you. Thanks for having me on the show.

CATHY WURZER: I recall a school resource officer in the Minneapolis Public Schools I attended, and that was, well, decades ago. Has the role of police officers in schools changed over the years?

JAMES DENSLEY: Yeah, I'd say it's probably evolved somewhat. I think in a post-Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook world, people look to school resource officers to provide an immediate response to what they perceive as being the threat of school shootings. But the reality of a school resource officers-- they are doing much more than just serving as a deterrent.

And the research around this is very mixed about how successful they are in meeting those goals. But I will say this. SROs in schools are central to a police department strategy for building trust in a community and having families truly know their officers.

So an individual SRO-- they can have relationships with students that help them thrive at school. SROs participate in school activities, extracurricular programs, and they can also be a really supportive presence that just goes beyond what you might think of as traditional law enforcement duties.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned a post-Columbine, a post-Sandy Hook world. You have co-created the Violence Project, which is a database of mass shooters. What do we know about school resource officers being seen as a way to prevent mass shootings? Do we have any data on that?

JAMES DENSLEY: Yeah, that's a great question. I think in the event of an emergency like an active shooter scenario, SROs obviously can provide immediate assistance and be there until other first responders arrive, but our research also shows that they're not necessarily a deterrent to threats coming into the school.

And that's partly because the students that perpetrate school shootings are themselves school children, so they know that the school resource officers are there. And more than that, our research actually shows that those individuals are often actively suicidal and they intend to die on the scene of the shooting.

And so getting shot by the SRO is actually part of the plan, and that's what complicates this idea around them serving as a deterrent. In some cases, they may even be almost like an incentive or part of the planning for the shooting itself.

CATHY WURZER: So deterrence of gun related violence-- that's, as you say, a little cloudy. Do SROs prevent some other violence, say, school fights?

JAMES DENSLEY: Yes, I think there's evidence to suggest that they can do that. But the other challenge is that what ends up happening is SROs will then use exclusionary discipline, things like suspensions, or they're more likely to arrest people for what you might think of as being subjective or minor offenses, things like disorderly conduct-- whatever that means.

So what appears to be happening is you get non-criminal student misbehavior, things like school fights, like you mentioned, and they get escalated into criminal charges once police are involved, and this is what researchers often call the school to prison pipeline. You're pushing students into the criminal justice system for minor infractions.

You're criminalizing everyday incivility. These are things that in generations past would have been handled in the principal's office, but now they get handled in the police station, and that's one of the biggest concerns about having SROs in schools.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I'm glad you brought that up because there are folks that argue that the SROs do make it easier to criminalize students for behavioral issues that school administrators should handle. So should principals kind of take up that role again as they did in the past, or is that horse out of the barn, in a sense?

JAMES DENSLEY: Well, there's always this question. Is a person with a badge and a gun the best person to be doing these things in schools? Should those funds be spent not on SROs but redirected to mental health services or counseling or other educational resources and really address the root causes of behaviors?

I think either way, if SROs are pulled out of schools, there needs to be a plan of what to do and what will replace them because we know for a fact that SROs are bridging the information gap between schools and communities, and that's really important. This is something that maybe principals can't do as well or other teachers in the school building.

SROs can help mediate conflicts. They have a far better understanding of gang affiliations and rivalries in a community, for instance, and who's beefing with who on social media. And they can also really help reintegrate students into a school if they're returning to school after having some issues in the community.

But the research again shows here-- and this is important-- some students genuinely feel safer with SROs around, but others don't because they don't like having armed personnel in the building. It creates an intimidating atmosphere, and it signals that the school is unsafe.

And the research actually shows that those perceptions are usually split along racial lines. So white students generally feel safer with SROs around, but students of color fear that the police are an occupying force and that they're under constant surveillance, and that's what has a detrimental impact on school connectedness.

CATHY WURZER: So what do researchers recommend? I mean, what's the path forward on this, I wonder?

JAMES DENSLEY: It's a sensitive balance. I think it's trying to cultivate all the positives that SROs can bring. As I mentioned earlier, when you've got SROs that are truly engaged in the lives of the students in the schools, that are participating in activities and extracurricular programs and other things and building trust, then they really are a valuable resource.

But if the role of the SRO is exclusively to manage disciplinary issues in the school that otherwise could and should be managed by somebody else that's better qualified, and then in doing so, we're criminalizing those students, that's where the SROs are not needed. I'm actually a former school teacher. I taught in the New York City Public Schools, and we had an SRO that certainly did more harm than good.

But at the same time, I personally know SROs who are serving as mentors and positive role models, and they're beloved by students. And so again, it's about getting that balance right, and it's about allocating the resources effectively so that we get optimal outcomes for our students.

CATHY WURZER: The situation currently where we have some 40 agencies pulling their SROs out of districts is also kind of a real time research project in a sense. It'll be interesting to see what happens, don't you think?

JAMES DENSLEY: Oh, absolutely. It's almost a natural experiment because we're starting to see now when districts have pulled SROs out, what is the alternative? And I think that's always been the question is we never have that counterfactual. We never know about the non-events.

We never know about the things that happen that don't get reported in the media and so on, and so this could be an interesting opportunity to see exactly what happens in the absence of SROs, and again, really getting to this idea of-- if the SRO is not going to do it, who is going to do it? Because unfortunately, the solution here is not nothing. There has to be some sort of support or alternative put in place, and that's usually where these things get missed.

CATHY WURZER: I always learn something from you, Professor. Thank you for your time.

JAMES DENSLEY: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: James Densley is a professor and department chair of criminal justice at Metro State University.

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