School resource officers: What are they and are they necessary?

Police officers walk the hallways of schools across the country, but should they?
school resource officers
School resource officers have become a subject of debate as cities and states across the country reevaluate their policing departments.TODAY illustration
/ Source: TODAY

Following the death of George Floyd and nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, there have been growing calls across the country to defund the police, reallocate budgets for law enforcement and even dismantle police departments completely. These ongoing calls also extend to police officers in community-based settings, such as school resource officers.

Some school districts have already announced changes. The school district in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd died, has already voted to terminate its contract with the local police department. Kim Ellison, the chair of the Minneapolis Schools board, said in a statement: "We must take all actions within our power to stop systems of oppression. For the MPS School Board, that means discontinuing our contractual relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department."

In Portland, Oregon, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero announced in a tweet that he would be "discontinuing the regular presence of School Resource Officers" in the state's largest school district, while Seattle Public Schools said it will suspend its relationship with police for one year.

What is a school resource officer?

A school resource officer, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), is a law enforcement officer “responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.” They help train and educate school staff members and students, develop safety plans and serve as a liaison between schools and outside agencies, in addition to enforcing laws.

The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) explains on its website that the number of school resource officers across the U.S. is unknown as SROs aren’t required to register with a national database. Police departments and schools also don’t have to report how many officers are assigned to schools. However, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics has compiled survey data from public schools across all levels — from elementary to high schools — with the most recent data available from 2003-2016 with no data available between 2011-2014. In 2016, there were about 35,100 school resource officers present in public schools at least once a week, a 35% increase from the 26,000 officers who were present on a “regular basis” in 2003. There were at least 52,100 SROs in public schools overall in 2016, up from 34,000 officers in 2003.

Jason Neidig, a school resource officer at Aberdeen Middle School in Aberdeen, Maryland, says the focus of his job is two-fold. "The number one priority in the school is the safety and protection of the students and staff. That’s the reason, the number one reason, that school resource officers are in the school. The second part of that is building those relationships with those students, bridging that gap."

Neidig, who has worked in the school for four years, says building relationships, trust and respect between SROs and students is especially crucial. "I’ve gotten to know, not just students, but their families and their siblings and you really get a good understanding of what’s going on in that student’s life and that’s important ... especially when you get to know their families and their background. You’ll know why students sometimes act the way they act and being able to be right on top of that has been successful in preventing fights or crimes or maybe an attempted suicide or something like that."

Most of all, Neidig argues that SROs are instrumental in times of crisis. "Having an officer in the school on location and able to get first-hand, concise and accurate information to the responding officers to these types of situation is crucial (to) stopping an active assailant.”

Like other police officers, SROs can be armed and have sometimes been hailed as heroes, like in 2018 when Mark Dallas, a school resource officer, jumped into action to stop a gunman at an Illinois high school.

To John Castillo, whose son, Kendrick, died in a school shooting in 2019, school resource officers are a necessary part of the school environment. At a press conference after Denver Public Schools announced it would end its contract with local police, Castillo said, "We're creating a divide saying that police are bad. We want them out and I don't know how that's building community."

Should police be in schools?

But the presence and role of school resource officers has also come under scrutiny before, particularly in high-profile tragedies, such as in Parkland, Florida, where school resource officer Scot Peterson was criticized for not entering Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 to confront a gunman who killed 17 students and staff members.

SROs have also been accused of using excessive force or otherwise responding inappropriately to incidents involving young students. In December 2019, a sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina was seen on video slamming an 11-year-old middle school student on the ground. Another officer in Pompano Beach, Florida, was arrested after he was caught on camera slamming a 15-year-old girl to the ground by her throat. In Orlando, Florida, an officer was fired after arresting two 6-year-old girls in separate incidents. And in New Mexico, a SRO resigned after he was seen shoving and roughing up an 11-year-old girl.

As the controversial debate surrounding police reform continues, Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the U.S., announced it plans to review school police practices this summer. LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said, "We cannot ignore legitimate concerns and criticism that students and other members in the school community have about all forms of law enforcement." He also noted he will recommend the end of a policy permitting "carotid holds" or chokeholds.