The presence of armed police in public schools has risen steadily in the last twenty years as a result of increased funding from the US Department of Justice. These uniformed police are referred to as School Resource Officers (SROs) and are most common in secondary urban schools, middle and high school. The most cited purpose for police presence in schools is to provide protection in the event of an active shooter situation.
But this is not what SROs do on a day to day basis in our schools. If the job of the SRO was strictly to protect students and faculty from intruders, then SROs would never leave the front office and the main entrance to the building. But SROs can be found “patrolling” and providing supervision in the halls, gymnasium, cafeteria, and other gathering places for students. At some point the narrative concerning SROs switched from protecting students from outsiders to protecting teachers and administrators from students.
Oklahoma does not require special training for SROs. Specialized training is offered through the Oklahoma Association of School Resource Officers (OKASRO) and the Oklahoma School Security Institute (OSSI), but the vast majority of SROs nationwide do not receive any additional training in working with adolescents other than that which they receive through normal police training. The Atlantic
OSSI was created in 2013 as an initiative of Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb in response to the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. The Oklahoma Commission on School Security, put out the same year, OSSI, includes some valuable data relative to bullying and student mental health, both which have become ever more pressing issues facing schools since 2013. What the report does not do is make a necessary connection between school security and the increase of police presence. SROs are briefly mentioned as a possible part of a long term study goal. The biggest outcomes of the report seem to be a school security tip line and mandated intruder drills of which all students and teachers are now familiar.
Research shows that urban schools are no more at risk of shootings compared to suburban and rural schools. PsychLawJournal So why are SROs concentrated in urban schools with predominantly non-white student populations? SROs have the ability to expedite what is called the school-to-prison pipeline by eliminating all steps between the classroom and the jail cell. USNews As police presence in schools has risen, so has student arrests, and students are not behaving any different than before the presence of SROs.
So what are the power dynamics at play in schools with SROs? The answer lies partly in understanding the hierarchy of school discipline. To put it plainly, teachers refer to principals, and principals refer to SROs. In fact, the paperwork that accompanies a student who is sent to the office for discipline issues is often called a “referral.” The common understanding of referrals among teachers is that they are reserved for discipline issues that cannot be handled in the classroom.
Classroom discipline is tricky because of the difficulty in knowing the difference between behavior that disrupts learning / hurts other students and behavior that challenges the authority of the teacher. The former includes frequent disruptions, bullying, and physical violence. These issues are often difficult to address without parental and/or administrative involvement. The latter includes language, tone of voice, posture, eye contact, cell phones, and the list goes on. These issues can often be addressed one-on-one between teacher and student, but too often result in an angry teacher and a student in the principal’s office. Then when students speak back to principals in a similar manner, SROs are quickly called in and the situation escalates.
Schools are not the same as the streets and sidewalks of our communities. Almost every day over 100 students come through my room, 25 at a time, then go home at 3:20, and no one gets hurt or sent to the office, and that is nothing short of a miracle. Public schools do the miraculous every single day. If I get rattled every time a student gets an attitude with me, then I won’t last another week as a teacher. Yet this is how police function in our communities. If I show attitude toward police in a traffic stop, I am likely to be arrested. When people of color show attitude toward police (or not), the outcome is much worse. I simply do not understand why we would want this kind of authority inside our schools. Teaching is a power that has the possibility to corrupt. Police in schools is the kind of absolute power that corrupts absolutely. I have seen it too many times.
I want my classroom to be a place where my students feel safe. Safe from intruders, safe from bullying, safe from a volatile teacher, and safe from a power wielding SRO.