In the last 12 years, there’s been a dramatic increase in School Resource Officers in public secondary schools in the U.S. While there may be benefits to having SROs in schools, there are clearly downsides as well.
Both middle schools and high schools have an SRO, uniformed Fairfax County Police officer, assigned to them. The SRO functions are defined in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entered into between the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools and the Chief of Fairfax County Police, with the blessing of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. SROs presence is largely justified on grounds of safety and security. And some of us think it is beneficial for kids to have a positive image of, and relationship with, a police officer.
Regarding safety, many these days think in terms of protecting kids from gunmen frequently in the news following mass killings. In fact, even including the recent Parkland and Santa Fe killings, the odds of any child getting killed in school are less than 1 in 1 million! Besides, gunmen armed with readily available AR-15s or other semiautomatic weapons of war designed to kill people have so many other venues (churches, theaters, places of entertainment, streets, etc) that schools constitute just a small portion of U.S. killing fields.
It turns out that SROs are unlikely to ever face armed intruders, but once in our school systems they do find other ways to perform law enforcement tasks, like arresting kids. Sadly, recent data, e.g., 2015-16, show that most arrests of students by SROs are not safety related: 75 arrests were for disorderly conduct, 29 for trespassing, and 23 for “grand larceny.” The latter makes what would be a school disciplinary matter into a police record potentially for kids as young as 12.
Then there is the troubling fact that arrests fall disproportionately on minority students. In one Fairfax County school (Sandburg MS) 32 or 36 of kids arrested were Latino or African American. Countywide nearly 30 percent of those arrested were African-Americans, who constitute about 11 percent of the population. When one considers these data it is hard to ignore the disappointing record of Fairfax in hiring a force representative of the people it serves. Latinos and African-Americans are under-represented overall, even more so at management levels. Then consider that officers serving as SROs are contributing to the school to prison pipeline beginning with kids as young as 12.
So, it gives me pause in considering the merits of the SRO program in Fairfax County to think of the impact of inserting law enforcement and arrests in our schools, especially so given the disproportionate impact of arrests on Latino and African-American kids. To begin corrective action, the Fairfax NAACP believes the MOU governing the role of SROs must be revised. I fully agree and think that at a minimum, the following changes are needed:
- Narrow the SRO range of responsibility to intervene only in situations which threaten lives or grave injury. General misconduct and even disruptions are matters which should be left to teachers and administrators (as they were in my schools!) equipped to deal with them as part of the learning process.
- End racial profiling and “stop and frisk” policies. The MOU language allowing SROs to “monitor cultural and social influences” has got to go. I am not sure what it even means, but it seems like an invitation to racial profiling.
- Empower parents to intervene on their children’s behalf when they are the subject of police investigation. This indeed should be a guaranteed right of the parents and of the children, but it is not in the MOU as it stands.