(NewsNation) — Viral acts of violence in America’s schools have reignited debates about the best way to protect kids in the classroom.
In Washington, D.C., some local officials are rethinking plans they’ve made to remove school police officers — called School Resource Officers (SROs) — from schools over the next couple of years.
“When there are weapons brought to school, and teachers being harmed, and young people being shot at and there are no officers available to assist. That is not fair to put on teachers. That is a burden too high to ask our teachers to take on. They’re doing such important work,” Brook Pinto, a D.C. councilwoman, said recently after introducing legislation to maintain SROs in the city.
But critics of SROs are skeptical of their impact on public safety and argue that they make it easier to criminalize students for behavioral issues that school administrators should handle.
Lucy Sorenson, an education policy researcher at the University of Albany, has studied the impact of SROs on schools across two studies. Her research shows that both sides may have a point.
In one study, she looked specifically at North Carolina middle schools. In the other, she and her team looked at schools nationwide.
“In both cases, we saw that when you introduced an SRO into a school, instances of reported violence go down,” she said, pointing to a reduction in behavior like fighting.
But there are also punitive consequences for students.
“What we found across both studies is when an SRO enters a school, typically we see an increase in the use of suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement and arrest,” she noted, adding that these increases are biggest for African American students, male students and students with disabilities.
While it may be easy to jump to the conclusion that these punitive actions could deter violence, Sorenson offered a note of caution.
“We can’t say with great certainty whether these things are linked or not,” she said.
Beyond the question of whether SROs should be in schools or shouldn’t be there, there’s also a question of how they’re being used.
Clayton County, Georgia, for instance, embarked on a series of reforms where schools worked with SROs to reduce referrals to juvenile court and set up an alternative system to offer support for misbehaving students. These reforms kept the SROs in schools but drastically reduced the number of kids who ended up in juvenile court.