Are School Resource Officers the Solution?

A recent article in Education Week (Stephan Sawchuk, November 16, 2021) described the role of School Resource Officers (SROs) and analyzed their training, funding, use and effectiveness. Here are three quotes from the article.

“Researchers found that the presence of SROs in schools that received COP federal grants saw a higher proportional number of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students compared to those that missed out on the grants.”

“It’s consistent with some other recent studies, one of which found that adding police led to more arrests among children under age 15 as a result of the grants.”

“A study in Texas, found that middle school disciplinary rates rose by 6 percent after schools received the grants.”

The studies cited looked at pairs of schools matched on socioeconomic factors. The schools that had a trained law enforcement officer on site took more direct actions to reduce school violence and disruption than the ones that did not. That seems like an outcome that would have been reasonably expected and possibly even hoped for by the school district. However, that was not the problem. The problem was that a majority of those who were disciplined were Black students. In one study, “The effects were two time larger for Black than for white students.” In the Texas study quoted above, disciplinary actions “were concentrated among Black and Hispanic students.” I will return to that point.

Near the end of the article the author adds an important counterpoint. He refers to a “series” (undefined) of recent studies that conclude, “The presence of SROs does appear to lead to declines in violent incidents in schools, such as rape, robbery, and physical attacks.”

I was a school district administrator in 2014, the year that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights released a report about the over-representation of minority students in the data it received from individual school districts regarding student discipline. This was quickly followed by new federal regulations intended to address this concern.

Despite assumed good intentions, from the 2015–16 to 2017–18 school year three types of discipline practices increased: 1) school-related arrests; 2) expulsions with educational services; and 3) referrals to law enforcement. Black students, who accounted for 15.1 % of total student enrollment, were expelled at rates that were more than twice their share of total student enrollment — 38.8% of expulsions with educational services and (whites were 33.4%) and 33.3% of expulsions without educational services (whites where 40.5%) In 2017–18, Black students received one or more in-school suspensions (31.4%) and one or more out-of-school suspensions (38.2%) at rates that were more than twice their share of total student enrollment (15.1%).

In 2017–18, Black students accounted for 28.7% of all students referred to law enforcement and 31.6% of all students arrested at school or during a school-related activity — twice their share of total student enrollment of 15.1%.

To shed further light on this issue, it is important to consider the relationship between the higher rate of suspension of students of color and the lower performance of these students on standardized tests. Using data from the Stanford Education Data Archive (containing 350 million test scores from students in grades 3 to 8 at every public school in America) along with disciplinary data collected by the U.S. Department of Educations’ Civil Rights Data Collection and socioeconomic information on school districts from the Common Core of Data and the American Community Survey (I know, that’s a lot of data!), researchers found that there is a correlation between these two outcomes. As reported by Carrie Spector on February 6, 2020, “The researchers found that a 10 percentage point increase in the black-white discipline gap in a school district predicts an achievement gap that is 17 percent larger than the average black-white achievement gap.“

Anyone who has been an educator for more than a few years will recall that at one time a great deal of attention was placed on the importance of “Time on Task.” The concept is often associated with John Hopkins University where summary research was conducted on behalf of the National Commission on Educational Excellence. The essence of this concept was stated as follows “The amount of time that teachers allocate to instruction in a particular content area is positively associated with student learning in that content area.”* More academic learning time leads to greater student learning. So…how do you, as a student, accumulate instructional time on task, if you have been suspended or expelled and you are not physically present in class? Obviously, you don’t! The same can be said for a student who has been assigned to detention, sent to some other teacher’s classroom to “cool off,” sitting in the Dean’s Office or the principal’s office or the counselors office or the school psychologist’s office or any place other than face-to-face with your teacher.

*The original source for this quote was the Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study (Fisher, Dishaw and Marliave, 1978)

If you are with me so far, this next tidbit may cause you some consternation. Ready?

In December 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education rescinded federal guidelines put into place in 2014 to address racial disparities in school discipline. Efforts to find alternatives to existing disciplinary measures were to cease. And for many schools and school districts, they did.

We know the facts. We know the statistics. We know the bad outcomes continuing to be disproportionately born by minority students. We know that secondary schools are organizations that are often resistant to change. We know that any issue that involves race tends to generate a great deal of heat. What we don’t know is whether or not Restorative Justice is the solution or is it new and better forms of Social Emotional Learning or is it improving our hiring practices to assure that our teaching population treats every student with respect and capitalizes on the life experience and culture that they bring to the classroom or is it something else? Perhaps a combination of these and other approaches is the answer.

Or…hold your hats! Are all of these “new” approaches nothing more than a way to avoid dealing with students who are disruptive, disrespectful, and, sometimes, dangerous to everyone in their reach? Well, that’s a disturbing thought, but it does reflect what many people, in and out of education, have expressed in a variety of public and private forums for some time now.

I hope that is not where this conversation ends. And I’m guessing that it’s not what my readers want either.


School Resource Officers (SROs), Explained By Stephen Sawchuk — Education Week, November 16, 2021

Time on Task: A Research Review
Grant No. NIE-G-80–0113 Nancy L. Karweit
January 1983 Published by Center for Social Organization of Schools
The Johns Hopkins University

How Unequal Discipline Hurts Black Students By Carrie Spector | February 6, 2020 Originally published by the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

DeVos To Rescind Obama-Era Guidance On School Discipline, Anya Kamanetz, December 18, 2018,



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Mark Rosenbaum

Mark Rosenbaum is a retired teacher, teacher union president, principal, Assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, and University Instructor on Long Island, NY.