Done right, the school resource officer can be a trusted member of a school community. They’re armed and, in theory, prepared to put their life on the line in the event of a mass shooting. But they also should enjoy working with kids and have the patience to step up as a mentor or informal counselor when necessary.
However, done wrong, they can transform the face of public schools into an environment where minor infractions are handled by cops rather than teachers, where kids are taught from an early age not to trust law enforcement, and where teenagers with behavioral problems are funneled out of school and into the juvenile justice system.
Ever since the Valentine’s Day massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead, lawmakers and parents are again calling for increased security at schools across the country. But experts are urging caution about ramping up police at schools without considering the long-term effects of their presence.
The week after the shooting, Florida Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a multipronged plan to improve safety in schools, with a price tag of $450 million, that included a proposal to install at least one school resource officer for every 1,000 students in Florida by the start of the new school year in September.
Since Parkland, some of the ideas floated by lawmakers — arming teachers or banning assault weapons — have fueled the already bitterly partisan gun control debate. Meanwhile, “hardening schools”, which includes better security technology and more school resource officers, has emerged as the least controversial solution. And that means local officials across the country are looking at their budgets and trying to figure out ways to make their schools safer through hiring more cops.
There’s currently no centralized database of school resource officers, meaning it’s difficult to say definitively how many there are across the U.S. According to the most recent available data, a 2015 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 30 percent of participating schools reported having at least one full-time or part-time school resource officer during the 2013-2014 academic year. An analysis of those numbers by NASRO determined there must be approximately 29,550 public schools with at least one resource officer in the U.S.
“We don’t have hard evidence that school resource officers actually make campuses safer"
Research on the effectiveness of school resource officers at preventing school shootings is scant and largely anecdotal. The only armed officer at Parkland chose to stay outside while the 19-year-old gunman went on his rampage for several minutes inside the school, killling former classmates and some teachers. Broward County Deputy Scott Peterson was armed and in uniform, but did not follow mass shooting protocol, opting to wait until the SWAT team arrived on campus. Peterson has insisted he thought the gunshots were coming from outside.
There was also an armed resource officer on site at the time of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, which left 15 dead. He was on a lunch break when the massacre took place.
But Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, says there are plenty of examples where resource officers prevented or successfully responded to shootings, but because nobody died, those incidents failed to get much attention. For example, a resource officer from Antigo, Wisconsin, received a Presidential Medal of Honor last week for stopping a teenage gunman who came to his school’s junior prom armed with an assault rifle in April 2016. Two students were shot but survived. Another resource officer, in Maryland, recently arrested a student for carrying a concealed firearm to school, after receiving a tip from another student.
“We don’t have hard evidence that school resource officers actually make campuses safer. We know from experience it’s not going to eliminate violence,“ said Jason Nance, a professor at the University of Florida. “But we do have empirical evidence that shows that once schools increase interaction with law enforcement, that will increase the number of students who also have interaction with the criminal justice system, which can have devastating consequences on their futures.”
Then there’s the difficulty of hiring and training school resource officers. For Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, not far from Orlando, Florida, Gov. Scott’s proposal would mean hiring 100 school resource officers in the next six months, which he says will be no easy feat.
As it stands, Volusia County is currently budgeted for 15 school resource officers — the school board pays 75 percent of their salaries and the county pays the remainder. Chitwood, who was elected in 2016, said the county could once afford 30 resource officers but was forced to cut that number in half when tightening pursestrings during the economic downturn after 2007.
“Now some of those officers oversee three schools,” said Chitwood. “They go from school to school, spending about 45 minutes in each one.”
Recruitment, vetting, and training new officers is very time-consuming. Chitwood says he hired 33 regular deputies in all of last year and "it took nonstop recruiting.”
"It can't just be a guy with a gun"
Pressure to recruit and hire so many resource officers in a short period can run the risk of cutting corners in training, not what you want for any job involving kids.
“It can’t just be a guy with a gun. In addition to providing security, they’re there to serve as mentors. In some cases, I’ve had school resource officers who were previously teachers or coaches. They’re the kinds of people you want in school,” Chitwood said. “I could never be a school resource officer; I don’t have the patience. Some officers just don’t have the temperament or the passion to go into a school and do that job.”
Chitwood says there’s a temptation to dump the worst police officers in schools, and resource officers are often given fewer resources than cops on the beat, like patrol cars or laptops.
“You can’t afford to put a bum in there. There are offices that do that: They use the student resource officer position to put underperformers,” said Chitwood. “But you gotta use your head in there. You gotta be aware of who is a danger on campus. You gotta be on top of social media.”
“Kids need to see past the uniform, trust you, come to you and say, ‘Hey, i’m being bullied’”
The National Association of School Resource Officers offers a blueprint for how school cops should conduct themselves, and trains about 1,000 aspiring officers a year. “We get officers who are told, ‘You’re going to do this whether you like it or not’. Then you get officers who just want weekends and holidays off. And then you have retirees. We tell them, ‘You don’t need to be here’,” said Hardy, who spent 22 years as a school resource officer, after working as a teacher. “Kids need to see past the uniform, trust you, come to you and say, ‘Hey, i’m being bullied.’”
In addition to recruitment complications, there’s also a financial concern. School resource officers, with an annual salary of anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000, don’t come cheap. It isn’t clear yet how Gov. Scott’s school safety budget would trickle down to a local level in Florida. If the money didn't come, school boards would be left to apply for federal grant money, or make difficult choices about how to divide their resources, or decide whether money would be better spent on mental health counseling or after-school programs.
In the immediate aftermath of previous school shootings, federal and state officials have scrambled to make funding available for schools that want to increase campus security.
COPS in schools
In 1999 after Columbine, the DOJ’s Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) launched a “Cops in Schools” program that offered grants to local agencies hoping to hire school resource officers. Until 2005 (when the program ended), the COPS program awarded more than $753 million to more than 3,000 agencies to hire more than 6,500 school resource officers. Additional federal funds for hiring school resource officers, made available through the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, ended in 2009.
“The elimination of these federal funding sources resulted in less grant or soft money being available for schools to hire SROs [school resource officers],” wrote Phil Stinson, criminology professor at Bowling Green State University, in a 2013 paper on crimes committed by school cops. “Many schools and local police departments have had to reassess their own funding priorities because of tightening budgets related in part to the national recession of 2008 and 2009.”
After Sandy Hook, in December 2012, where 26 were killed, including 20 kids, the Obama Administration, announced that it would allocate funding to boost police officer presence in schools through the COPS Office Hiring Program. (Trump’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 suggests slashing that program in half). Last year, COPS granted $2.5 million to 11 law enforcement agencies to hire resource officers. That was a significant drop from the previous year, when the office granted $7.3 million to 34 agencies.
Ron Davis, visiting senior fellow at Harvard Law’s criminal justice policy program, had just been appointed to run the COPs office when Sandy Hook happened. Davis, a former police chief, was attuned to concerns that school resource officers were often fulfilling the role as disciplinarians and contributing to the “school-to-prison pipeline” which disproportionately impacted students of color. The conditions of the COPS grant under Davis was that hopeful awardees had to submit a memo stating how they planned to collaborate with their local school system and be part of the community.
“Our focus was that the school resource officer should be a positive influence in schools,” Davis said. “Their job is not to police students or engage in discipline.”
A violent incident in 2015 that was caught on tape and went viral thrusted the role of school resource officers into the spotlight. In the video, Richland County (South Carolina) deputy Ben Fields was seen body-slamming a black female high school student in a classroom.
Fields. one of three resource officers assigned to Spring Valley High, had been named two years earlier as a defendant in a 2013 lawsuit claiming he “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”
In 2015, a civil rights investigation by the Department of Education into the Oklahoma City school district found that black students were disproportionately disciplined and arrested for school-related incidents compared to their white peers. Meanwhile, a 2017 survey of Chicago schools found that two-thirds of the 250 resource officers deployed across the school district had at least one complaint filed against them.
“If I think of how many fistfights I got into when I was a kid - well, there was a lot. Sometimes I was getting picked on, sometimes I was just being a kid,” Sheriff Chitwood said. “But if the law had been that strict, I would never be where I am today. I would have ended up with a couple of felony arrests. I see kids that I can’t hire all the time just because they got into a fight when they were in school.”