The Costs of School Policing

https://www.cato.org/blog/costs-school-policing

Kayla Susalla

While public schools face ongoing funding challenges, resources are being allocated to School Resource Officers (SROs) to respond to anti‐​social behavior. Though reactive measures are important to have in place, employing police to respond to misbehavior is not only costly, it does not provide a long‐​term solution to school climate issues.

SROs are sworn law enforcement officers stationed in public schools, serving as first responders, mentors, and informal counselors. Research suggests their presence leads to increased out‐​of‐​school suspensions and arrests, affecting students of color, males, and those with disabilities at higher rates. Despite evidence highlighting the drawbacks of police in schools, their presence in public schools has been steadily increasing.

The State of SRO Spending

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4.3 percent of SRO program funding came from federal grants, 78.6 percent from school districts, and 10.2 percent from state or local grants, as well as taxes. Since the Columbine High School shooting tragedy in 1999, an estimated $1 billion has been distributed by the federal government, and $965 million in state funding. The US Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office currently distributes grant money to police agencies to help fund SRO programs. States spending more per pupil on SROs tend to spend less on counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

Proposed Additional Funding

In the 2023–24 legislative session, the Strengthening School Safety for Security Act was introduced, which would penalize states by withholding federal education funds if they did not possess two SROs per 500 students in each elementary and high school. The act would allocate $28 billion over four years. Another bill, the Safe Schools Act, would distribute funds originally intended for COVID-19 relief to hire SROs and add other security measures.

Given the limited, mixed research on SROs, and literature suggesting they largely respond to non‐​deadly crimes, there is concern that school policing over‐​criminalizes trivial misbehavior that could be handled by schools. Constitutionally, the federal government has no authority to intervene in education, and it should especially avoid funneling unprecedented dollars to programs that do not produce a net benefit.

It is also unclear if anti‐​social behavior in schools calls for large increases in law enforcement. A common justification for employing SROs is to respond to violent fights, yet data suggest fighting in high schools, where SROs are most concentrated, has shown a declining trend since 1993.

The Cost of Juvenile Criminal Justice Involvement

If the juvenile’s case continues through court processes, families can accumulate high lawyer and court fees. Officers can also issue a citation in lieu of formal processing. But heavy‐​hitting costs have been shown to increase recidivism, and it’s unreasonable to place large financial responsibilities on minors, who may not even be employed. Such policies could also cause financial strain on families.

When cases advance to incarceration, taxpayers, and in some states parents, get the bill. The chart below illustrates the high costs of adolescent imprisonment by state.

Juvenile Economic Exclusion

Beyond the pecuniary costs are the narrowing of opportunities to increase individual capital.

Juvenile records create lasting barriers to education opportunities, as college admissions processes often ask applicants to disclose criminal histories, including arrest records. Today, if a juvenile is incarcerated, they are ineligible for federal student loans, depriving them of a chance to dramatically increase their lifetime earnings.

As of 2021, only 22 states had automatic expungement laws for juveniles, and some require initiation from prosecutors or judges. Juveniles with records are half as likely to receive a call‐​back from an employer. A fight at school should not equate to a lifetime sentence for economic exclusion.

Alternatives to School Policing

Community‐​centered alternatives should be prioritized, as they have been shown to produce positive outcomes and are less costly for the individual and their families, as well as taxpayers. Mentoring programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters America have demonstrated constructive results by reducing juvenile drug and alcohol use and physical altercations, while improving peer and familial relationships.

Another program, Positive Family Support (PFS), engages parents in school by hosting behavioral interventions and facilitating actionable plans for correction. PFS has been shown to decrease substance use and anti‐​social behavior.

Further, students in violation of school rules could be tasked with cleaning cafeterias or locker rooms, while engaging with a teacher or other staff member. Practices would strengthen relationships between adults and children, making it more plausible for students to reach out to a trusted adult in times of need, as well as facilitate trust, promoting greater receptivity to behavior‐​correcting interventions. As the teen mental health crisis remains a pressing issue, policies strengthening community ties and keeping kids in school are more important than ever.

Conceptualizing the consequences of one’s behavior is a part of the maturation process, and harsh punishments leading to long‐​term consequences do not provide kids with needed coping and conflict‐​resolution strategies.

For many reasons—financial and personal costs, as well as constitutional prohibitions—the federal government should get out of SRO funding, and states and school districts should think long and hard about expanding the presence of SROs.

Pushed Out and Underserved? Examining Alternative Education Campuses

https://www.cato.org/blog/pushed-out-underserved-examining-alternative-education-campuses

Kayla Susalla

It is frequently asserted that public schools educate all students. However, students deemed at‐​risk are sometimes transferred to alternative schools, also known as Alternative Education Campuses (AECs). AECs are understudied, yet existing data pose concerns for the outcomes and practices of the students they serve.

In the 2021–22 school year, over half‐​a‐​million students were enrolled in ACEs. ACEs are public schools commonly serving students deemed at risk of educational failure. Habitual suspensions, risk of expulsion, poor grades, substance abuse, truancy, pregnancy, or other challenging circumstances may result in a referral from a traditional public school, though students can also transfer voluntarily. Referral to an AEC is at the discretion of the traditional public school, and assignment can be temporary or permanent.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found a majority of teachers in AECs are hired directly to teach in such schools, but teachers can also transfer voluntarily and involuntarily from traditional public schools. AECs can focus on behavioral issues, credit recovery, or offer specific pedagogical approaches, though others may serve as a broader alternative for students in traditional public schools. Charter schools, as well as private schools contracted by school districts, can serve as AECs.

AECs can play a pivotal role in the trajectory of a child’s education. Individualized learning plans, lower teacher‐​student ratios, and flexibility in format are a few of the assets AECs can possess. However, there is concern that traditional public schools refer underperforming or difficult students to AECs to evade low graduation rates, and disproportionately transfer minority students.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlights the disparities in demographics and disciplinary actions of students who attend AECs. The GAO found in the 2015–2016 school year that Hispanic boys, black boys and girls, and boys with disabilities had higher enrollment shares in disciplinary alternative schools than in non‐​alternative schools. Additionally, the report noted, “in every district GAO visited, officials said students had experienced multiple types of trauma, such as gang violence, death of schoolmates or parents, poverty, or homelessness.”

In comparing disciplinary measures in alternative schools between the 2013–14 and 2015–16 school years, the report found disabled students experienced a 17 percent increase in occurrences of corporal punishment. Black students experienced an increase in corporal punishment, as well as in‐​school suspensions, school‐​related arrests, and referrals to law enforcement, while White and Hispanic students had a decrease in all types of discipline.

It is concerning if traditional public schools are referring at‐​risk students to schools designed to address behavioral or academic problems, and if in those schools harsh disciplinary measures like suspensions, law enforcement interventions, and corporal punishment are in widespread use. Such policies push kids, who are already struggling in and outside of school, further behind academically and can potentially re‐​traumatize them.

Preceding that, discretionary referrals may be influenced by conscious or unconscious bias, and may contribute to disproportionate referrals for specific groups of students.

Research evaluating outcomes of students who attend an AEC is scarce, but what exists is not encouraging. As seen in the graphs below, graduation rates tend to be extremely low compared to traditional public schools, as well as proficiency in math and language arts.

These results notwithstanding, some research suggests AECs produce generally positive outcomes. But it is unclear if such outcomes are due to lowered standards for AEC students, or effective practices.

A meta‐​analysis found a small positive effect on school performance, attitude, and self‐​esteem, suggesting students enjoy attending AECs. But it found no effect on juvenile delinquency. Wilkerson et al. discovered students in academic‐​remediation alternative schools earned more credits versus students attending a traditional public school that fit the alternative school attendance criteria. This despite having lower attendance rates.

school

Wilkerson et al. noted some academic‐​remediation alternative high schools allowed students to graduate with fewer credits compared to the traditional public schools they would have attended. Lowering requirements pushes kids through the system, possibly leaving them unprepared after graduation, and defeating the purpose of education.

The study also found alternative schools were associated with increased suspensions, but fewer office discipline referrals, suggesting alternative schools are quicker to use exclusionary discipline.

Clear guidelines on what justifies a referral to an alternative school are vital to mitigate subjective procedures and potentially discriminatory practices. Additionally, if AECs are using harsh disciplinary measures and leaving kids unprepared, students should not be forced into schools potentially causing more harm. Ultimately, policies should allow funding to follow students to freely selected institutions fitting their unique needs.

School Supply Lists Include SROs. Is That a Good Thing?

https://www.cato.org/blog/school-supply-lists-include-sros-good-thing

Kayla Susalla

School is back in session and many districts prepared by stocking up on School Resource Officers (SROs). Yet research is unclear about the effectiveness of SROs at increasing school safety, and suggests their presence leads to excessive discipline.

Policies increasing SROs are often proposed in response to school shootings, while SROs have adopted additional roles outside of traditional law enforcement in an attempt to maximize security. But as demonstrated in the Parkland, Florida, and Uvalde, Texas shootings, law enforcement isn’t a panacea, and its presence may adversely impact students.

Concern for and calls to address students’ safety amplify when innocent lives are stolen by a school shooter. Such a horrific act of violence leaves many traumatized and shakes the public with fear. But, as seen in the charts below, over the past decade public schools became increasingly hardened, yet active shooter situations remained relatively stable or were even in an increasing trend. Also, far fewer students than usual were physically in schools due to COVID-19 for part of 2020 and much of 2021. This suggests increasing security may not be the best approach to address shootings.

Looking at specific attacks, Scot Peterson, the School Resource Officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, remained outside for over 45 minutes until the shooting subsided, acting in opposition to his active shooter training, which directs officers to confront the shooter. Peterson cited confusion about the location of the shooting, yet dispatch audio was discovered of him identifying where the shots were coming from. Peterson was charged with child neglect, culpable negligence, and perjury, but acquitted on all charges.

At Robb Elementary in Uvalde, poor judgment calls between officers led to a 77‐​minute wait before law enforcement confronted the shooter. Nearly 400 officers were on the scene at Uvalde. Yet the lack of consensus on how to approach the situation and the absence of leadership resulted in a severely prolonged response.

This is especially alarming considering two months prior to the shooting, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police officers completed active shooter training at Uvalde High School.

In the rare situations in which active shooters enter schools, both cases highlight the complexities around confronting the shooter, school security failures, and law enforcement’s pitfalls. Large settings where schools are divided into two buildings, like in Parkland, make it increasingly difficult to locate the shooter, despite the presence of security cameras and personnel. Both schools had multiple doors unlocked, allowing the shooter access to the buildings. Schools can be heavily hardened, but if security measures are not applied as intended, that can be in vain.

Even in cases where an SRO successfully intervened to apprehend the shooter, like at Great Mills High School in Maryland, the assailant was able to bring a firearm into school, and fire and injure two students before being stopped. Despite the known presence of police, schools remain a target. In fact, a study found that after controlling for factors such as school type, location, and characteristics of the attack, the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed officer present than without one. These findings could be a result of shooters attempting to commit “suicide by cop,” in which the shooter targets settings in which they know police protocol is to neutralize the target, suggesting an underlying mental health issue.

Perhaps SROs are charged with doing too much, including serving as counselors. According to the National Association of School Resource Officers, SROs assume a triad model: teacher, informal counselor, and law enforcement officer to maximize school safety. Such a wide net leaves SROs’ duties applicable to several issues within a school, but they may not be suited for such complex roles.

SROs are not required to have any additional education or training to police schools. Teachers, in contrast, at a minimum possess a bachelor’s degree, while counselors typically hold an advanced degree or additional certifications. Degrees are not always synonymous with greater ability to do a job, but schools are not the same as the street, and police officers might be poorly prepared to do work outside of traditional law enforcement.

Police officers are trained to respond to threatening and dangerous situations, not to counsel children, which can leave students underserved when serious mental health support is needed. Filling schools with police also sends a message to students that school isn’t safe, fostering a climate of apprehension and uncertainty.

It’s important to take necessary protective measures to ensure student safety, but SROs may not be the best avenue.

School Resource Officers: Is Police Presence in Schools Doing More Harm than Good?

https://www.cato.org/blog/school-resource-officers-police-presence-schools-doing-more-harm-good

Kayla Susalla

In the 2019–20 school year – the most recent with federal data – 51.4 percent of public schools possessed an armed, sworn, law‐​enforcement officer. School Resource Officers (SROs) are police officers with a community‐​oriented approach intended to increase safety by mitigating crime, violence, and other anti‐​social behavior in schools. Some Americans view added police presence as an appropriate response to safeguard students, while others fear an increase in police misconduct. There is also growing concern SROs accelerate the “school‐​to‐​prison pipeline”: pushing students into the criminal justice system through excessive discipline and law enforcement contact.

With important concerns both for and against SROs, policymakers must ask: Do they do more harm than good?

SROs are relatively new, and there are yawning gaps in research. Studies are often limited to small samples and find contradictory outcomes on arrest rates and effects on school safety. Nevertheless, a common theme is the presence of SROs increase disciplinary actions, including punishments potentially carrying significant long‐​term harms.

Researchers Gottfredson, et al. compared schools with increased SRO presences to schools with no increase in SROs. They found that schools with increased SROs saw the number of drug and weapons‐​related offenses rise, as well as higher instances of exclusionary discipline by school administrators. Exclusionary discipline refers to measures that remove students from school, such as out‐​of‐​school suspensions. The study also concluded the increase in SROs did not improve school safety.

Researchers Sorensen, Shen, and Bushway found the presence of SROs in middle schools decreased serious violence, in contrast to Gottfredson, et al., making schools safer, but they also increased “out‐​of‐​school suspensions, transfers, expulsions, and police referrals.” The increase in suspensions was especially acute for Hispanic and Black students. A third study, comparing schools near police departments that did and did not qualify for SRO grants, had similar results, finding schools near departments above the threshold increased the number of recorded firearm offenses and decreased the instances of violent fights, but increased expulsions, referrals for arrest, out‐​of‐​school and in‐​school suspensions, and chronic absenteeism. Black students experienced the largest effect on out‐​of‐​school suspensions, over two times greater than white students, followed by students with disabilities and males.

Through exclusionary discipline, students miss the point of school – to be in the classroom learning – which can create lasting educational and socialization gaps. Additionally, the stigma surrounding the label of “criminal” can ostracize students from their social groups and remove support provided at school. But positive relationships are vital, particularly given the uptick of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression among young Americans.

Another study, which compared schools with and without SROs in the same districts, found no effect on total arrests, but a 402.3 percent increase in the arrest rate for disorderly conduct. The null findings on total arrests suggest arresting students is not the most common form of correction by SROs, but the five‐​fold increase in disorderly conduct bears consideration. Disorderly conduct is cited when someone “disrupts the peace” and it is among the most discretionary – and possibly minor – actions potentially resulting in charges. For example, a student abruptly shouting in class could be charged with a misdemeanor or civil infraction, or in severe circumstances, a felony. The charge could depend on several factors: the teacher’s tolerance of the disruption, the student’s prior relationship with the teacher or SRO, or occurrences of interruptions in prior classes. The circumstances surrounding filing charges against a student can be subjective, leaving criminal justice system involvement largely open to SRO choice.

Criminalization of misbehavior can inhibit future education, employment, and housing opportunities, feeding the “school‐​to‐​prison pipeline.” Additionally, narrowing of options may lead to a higher likelihood of recidivism, as students are deprived of opportunities that increase individual capital. Weisburst found that increased police presence in Texas schools led to a 2.5 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and about a 4 percent decrease in college enrollment rates.

An alternative to SROs could be encouraging administrators or parent monitors. Both groups could benefit from gaining greater awareness of school issues by engaging with the larger student body. Monitor positions create positive connections for youth by bridging social gaps between staff, parents, and students. Administrations can highlight mediation practices when conflict arises between students, and hold interventions with families, emphasizing law enforcement as a last resort. Such negotiation and conflict resolution are essential life skills.

States are rapidly expanding SRO programs, federal grants enable local agencies to create positions, and Congress continues to propose bills expanding such programs. Given the paucity of good research and the mixed findings of what does exist, expanding SROs is something all levels of government—especially Washington, which has no constitutional authority to intervene—should be hesitant to do.