Just days before most Minnesota students head back to classrooms, local police departments are removing officers from schools because of a new state law limiting physical restraints that can be used on students.
But, according to James Densley, a professor at Metro State University who studies youth violence, there is not a huge body of evidence on how effective student resource officers, or SROs, are at preventing violence in schools.
“You would think for something that is almost universal to this conversation around whether we should have armed police in schools that there would be tons of research. But there really isn’t,” Densely said.
There was a rise in the number of schools employing armed law enforcement officers after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Historically and currently, officers are often employed at schools as a preventative solution to mass shootings.
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Densley and his colleague from The Violence Project, Jillian Peterson an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Hamline University have done a study looking at the presence of officers in schools in the event of a mass shooting and found a surprising correlation that the death count increased whenever there was an armed officer on the scene.
“What our interpretation, based on theory and research, was is that many of the school shooters that perpetrate the big high profile, mass shooting events are suicidal prior to entering the building. And so they may have anticipated being shot and killed by the school resource officer, it might have actually been part of their plan,” Densley said. “So rather than acting as a deterrent to violence, they were incentivizing it.”
Densley’s theory is based on correlation, not causation, is only one study and is based on a specific type of extremely rare violence in schools.
A much more common scenario in schools, and one in which Densley says officers are more likely to be deployed, is the sort of daily violence of student fights or students bringing weapons or drugs to school. And the research on how helpful officers are in these situations is both scant and mixed.
In many instances, the presence of a resource officer or armed officer at a school can result in student problems, as Densley put it, getting “redefined” as criminal. When there are officers at a school, there tend to be more weapons and drugs found than if there aren’t officers. Having an officer in a school increases the chance that force, arrests and detainments would be used on students, as opposed to other solutions employed by principals or teachers.
On the other hand, says Densley, there are instances where officers in schools are able to de-escalate situations or build really powerful relationships with students and networks in a school that help them connect with the wider community.
“We often get stories about, ‘Here’s an SRO that was able to de-escalate a student in crisis, and therefore SROs are good.’ And then on the flip side, you have, ‘Here’s an SRO that was unable to de-escalate somebody in crisis or, in fact, escalated the situation and made it worse, and therefore SROs are bad.’ But what we don’t have is: What would have happened if the SRO wasn’t there in those two situations? Because there’s never a randomized controlled trial,” Densley said.
When students are surveyed about how they feel with officers, there tend to be differences along racial and ethnic lines. Officers tend to make white students feel safer and students of color like they’re under surveillance and less safe.
Densely is not convinced that placing armed officers in schools is the best or only solution to prevent violence. In the work he and his colleagues have done, they’re focused on, what he called a 95 to five rule — when you look at violent crime in a community or a school, five percent of the population is causing 95 percent of the violence.
So, for Densley and Peterson the key to reducing violence in schools is focusing on that 5 percent of students who, he pointed out, are also likely to be struggling academically.
“There’s a lot to be said around classroom management. And just good practice within schools, that could do a lot of this work so that we wouldn’t need school resource officers and others,” Densley said.
He mentioned several items like reducing class sizes, hiring more teachers, getting more paraprofessionals in schools to work with struggling students, focusing on literacy programs and extracurriculars. In other words, really engaging and working with students who are having trouble.
“There’s an element of educational policy and public safety policy as being two separate conversations, and I think that just still needs to be a better recognition that the two are intertwined and one of the same,” Densley said.
Still, this sort of solution takes more time and investment than just hiring an officer. In Minnesota, it’s also a solution that is complicated by a disparate funding system reliant on property taxes.
But for schools currently employing and relying on an officer, Densely said he’s not sure it’s a good idea to end contracts without spending time to come up with another solution.
“There has to be a little bit of due diligence, and strategic planning, and building alternatives, before you pull any resource away, whatever it is — even if SROs were terrible,” Densely said. “If you haven’t built whatever the alternative to them is, there’s going to be gaps, and people will fall through the cracks. And there’s going to be problems.”
MPR News reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.