Following nearly a year of protests against police brutality and racial injustice, an issue that has long been a fixture of school district warrants has returned to the forefront of conversation in some New Hampshire communities: the pros and cons of school resource officers.
Some Granite Staters believe sworn officers are needed on campus to protect students from threats of violence such as school shootings. Others raise concerns about criminalization of student behavior and the apparent disproportionate impact of school policing on students of color and those with disabilities. And as conversations around policing continue to evolve, some are looking for alternative ways to keep schools safe.
"From what I saw, (the school resource officer) always interacted with the same students and no one else really mattered," said Concord High alumna Lidia Yen, an organizer with Change for Concord, which has spearheaded efforts to end the high school's SRO program. "They say the school resource officer is supposed to be kind of like a counselor, but he was definitely not a counselor to me; I was actually afraid of him."
The role of these officers is often described as threefold: They are expected to be law enforcers, counselors and law-related educators. Due to a lack of data tracking requirements, their exact number is unknown, but in 2016, 42% of public schools surveyed by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that armed security staff, which could include SROs and non-sworn security guards, were present on campus at least one day a week.
New Hampshire currently requires no specialized training for police assigned to schools, though officers can participate in a five-day seminar through the National Association of School Resource Officers. Policing reforms proposed by the state's Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency would mandate specialized training and certification, as well as creating a model agreement for school-police partnerships.
But even with more training, advocates for removing officers from schools question whether police are the best people to respond when students act out, citing the negative effects of becoming involved with the criminal justice system as an adolescent. Yet law enforcement agencies and schools have pushed back against recent attempts to limit officers' power on New Hampshire campuses.
"We, I think, as a society have a tendency when we see a problem to just, if we don't know how to solve it, we just drop it at the hands of police. And that leads to criminalization, because that's what police are trained to do," said Concord parent Elizabeth Lahey, former director of the N.H. Attorney General's Civil Rights Unit. "They respond to crime, and they respond to crimes in a particular way."
In response to an article about the role of SROs in juvenile diversion programs, Lahey and five other New Hampshire attorneys recently penned a letter arguing SRO training is insufficient and highlighting their potential negative effects on nonwhite students.
In high schools across the state, Black and Latino students are referred to law enforcement at disproportionate rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In 2017-2018, 17% of Concord High School students referred to police were Black, while Black students made up only 9% of the school's population. Black students also made up 20% of out-of-school suspensions that year.
That year at Manchester Central High School, about 32% of referrals were for Hispanic and Latino students, though these students made up 21% of the school's population. At Nashua High School South, 20% of students referred to police were Black, while these students made up only 4% of the population. All three schools have SROs, though no research is available to definitively attribute these disparities to the officers.
Rather than taking a punitive approach, Yen would like to see schools devote more resources to mental health and counseling programs.
"It just seems like the only avenues schools are taking are to punish students," she said, "and not really handle the root of the problem."
The Concord School Board has launched a task force to study school safety and the effects of the district's SRO, while Lebanon voters narrowly supported a recent nonbinding measure to do away with the high school's officer. The Lebanon School Board later voted to keep the officer for at least one more year while the district conducts research on equity and race in the schools.
The data on SROs
Though school resource officers are now commonplace, police have not always had a consistent presence on campuses. In the late 1970s, there were fewer than 100 police serving in schools nationwide, but by 1994, that number had grown to more than 2,000, according to Education Week, a shift that has largely been attributed to fears of rising violence exacerbated by high-profile school shootings in the 1990s. The National School Resource Officer Association estimates that there are now between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs serving in the United States.
When it comes to whether these officers actually improve school safety, there's a lack of consensus among researchers. Many schools and law enforcement agencies don't collect consistent data about SRO interactions with students, and there's no standard metric for measuring their effectiveness.
Some research links resource officers to a decline in certain types of crime, including a 2009 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice that found schools with SROs had fewer arrests for weapons possession and assault charges than schools without an officer.
But researchers say these benefits don't appear to be widespread.
"There's not sort of this consistent beneficial effect that we're seeing that we would want them to have," said Benjamin Fisher, an assistant criminal justice professor at the University of Louisville. "By contrast, we do see fairly consistent negative consequences; we do see higher rates of punishment in schools, whether that's arrest rates or suspension rates, and we also see racial inequity."
A 2016 study published in the Washington University Law Review, which examined data from more than 2,600 schools, found that the presence of an SRO made it more likely that students would be referred to law enforcement. This was true even when controlling for other factors that could cause an increase in reported crime, such as state statutes that require schools to report certain incidents to police.
Students in schools with an SRO are also five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct, according to the same study that documented a decline in weapons charges and assaults.
School safety researchers argue that if SROs make schools safer, measures like suspensions, expulsions and arrests should go down after an officer is introduced.
"People just have this impression that they're safer with police in the schools, but really the data don't bear that out," said Denise Gottfredson, professor emerita of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland. " … We know from the Parkland shooting event that there was an SRO at the school and the SRO didn't intervene. So there's really no guarantee that police are going to be helpful, even in those situations."
A 2018 Washington Post analysis of gunfire in schools found that in nearly 200 instances where shots were fired, a school resource officer incapacitated an active shooter in just one situation, in 2001.
There's also evidence that higher disciplinary rates associated with SROs affect Black and Latino students more than white students. In a study published this year in the journal “Crime and Delinquency,” which compared schools that increased SRO staffing to socioeconomically similar schools that did not, researchers found that offenses and exclusionary discipline went up for Black and Latino students after SRO presence was increased.
But in schools that did not increase SRO staffing, these measures declined for Black and Latino students, while offenses and exclusionary discipline declined for white students in both groups.
"This study was the first study that showed that [the] effect of adding police persists for quite a long time, because we followed these schools for 20 months after they added the police," Gottfredson, who co-authored the report, explained.
Some SRO advocates argue an increase in arrests indicates the programs are working. However, experts caution that being arrested as a young person can have damaging long-term implications that should not be taken lightly. Youth that come in contact with the criminal justice system are more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to enroll in a four-year college and more likely to be incarcerated as an adult.
"We know from a lot longer body of research that's been going on for decades that both school suspension and experiencing an arrest as a young person are negative turning points in people's lives," Fisher said.
To promote school safety, Gottfredson recommends programs focused on social and emotional learning, substance use prevention and bullying prevention, which she said have been shown to reduce a variety of difficult student behaviors that can lead to safety concerns.
Todd DeMitchell, an education professor at the University of New Hampshire who has studied policy around school security, noted that the threat of school violence often comes from inside the building rather than an intruder. He said there's not enough evidence that "hardening" measures — such as metal detectors, resource officers, security cameras and active shooter drills — are effective responses.
"The environment that we create is critical to the sense of security and connectedness that students feel to their school and to their fellow students," DeMitchell said. "We must look beyond the easy nostrums of [being] locked down and armed that may make adults feel good, and find those difficult approaches that create a climate and culture of trust and acceptance."
A potential alternative
About five years ago, officials in Minnesota Intermediate School District 287 had to make a decision.
The district, which primarily serves students with high special education needs and those at risk of dropping out, had contracts with three different police departments to place school resource officers in four schools. One of those departments had been demanding to add a second officer, which would have cost the Twin Cities-area district an additional $60,000 per year.
At the same time, the district was working to improve its mental health resources and had begun to reevaluate officers' interactions with students, the majority of whom are nonwhite and many of whom have experienced trauma and violence.
"We felt we were getting officers who sometimes, frankly, weren't the highest trained or maybe weren't the most amenable to being in a school-aged population such as the level we have," Superintendent Sandra Lewandowski said. "And overall, we saw things happening, I'm chagrined to say; things like tazing, in some cases."
After making the decision not to renew its police contracts, the district replaced these officers with Student Safety Coaches: staff trained in de-escalation, crisis intervention and trauma-informed practices who build relationships with students and respond to potentially dangerous situations in the schools.
In 2018, student safety coaches responded to more than 1,100 situations throughout the four schools, according to data provided by the district. The district categorizes about 38% of those interactions as positive and focused on relationship building. About 27% resulted in the student returning to class, and about 10% were resolved with restorative practices focused on repairing harm caused by the student's actions, such as a circle discussion, a letter or an apology.
District officials say it's part of a shift in the school culture to focus on healing rather than punishment.
"We had officers in our schools that come into situations when they bubble up, and, their words, they try to handle and control," Theon Jarrett, student and staff safety manager for the district, said. "And when we think about young people, I don't like the language about handling or controlling anything. We're going to work with and support."
Educators still call the police when necessary, however — in 2018, police responded in 1.2% of interactions, and 0.3% of incidents overall ended with an arrest, district data show. About 1.6% of calls for student safety coaches that year required an EMT or paramedic response.
This represents a stark decline in on-campus arrests. The year before the student safety coach program was piloted, the district had 65 arrests in just one school. In the years since, the district has averaged five arrests annually across all four schools, according to Lewandowski.
Some school staff have concerns about the initiative, however. In a survey of 196 staff members conducted during an evaluation of the program by Wilder Research, 74% of staff said the student safety coaches were effective at de-escalating situations, but only 54% said they felt as safe in the school as they had before the program began. The research was conducted between April and May 2020.
The district also saw an increase in staff injuries the year after the pilot program launched, according to The 74, a nonprofit education news outlet. But officials have pushed back on the idea that this is connected to the removal of SROs, noting that injuries are often related to behavior stemming from a student's disability or childhood trauma, and officers typically would not respond to those types of incidents.
Jarrett and Lewandowski said the success of the initiative relies on employee-student relationships, and the district even recruited some existing staff to become student safety coaches, building on the connections they had already made within the school community.
"It's the people that you put in place to be that person, right? We have to have student-centered adults that want what's best for our students," Jarrett said. " … You have to live it, you have to feel it, it has to just be an innate part of it."
As discussions around policing and race have come to the fore over recent months, District 287 has received inquiries from schools and districts across the country about the model, including some parents in Concord, according to Lahey. Lewandowski and Jarrett said implementing something similar in other districts would require committed leaders willing to champion the effort.
"If you start with the kids and what the kids need, you're probably not going to go to a police department," Lewandowski said. "That's my biggest advice."
GSNC data editor John Bassett contributed to this report.
This article is part of a multiyear project exploring race and equity in New Hampshire produced by the partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.