Re-evaluating Today's School Resource Officers

April 20, 1999 sparked a new fear in American students and families – the possibility of mass shootings in what were supposed to be safe schools. Within six months of the Columbine shooting, the federal COPS in Schools Act allocated $68 million for mass SRO deployment. After the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Santa Fe school shootings, states allocated $950 million for further deployment. Today, we have spent over $2 billion on officers that now exist in 71% of public high schools. This massive investment begs the question of whether school resource officers have actually fulfilled their purpose.

As of 2020, the Pleasanton Police Department has assigned two sworn officers as school resource officers (SROs), serving our three middle schools and three high schools. However, the role SROs have played on a national scale reflect an overcommitment to policing rather than health; according to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection website in 2016, 1.7 million students are in schools that have SROs but do not have any counselors. The saturation of SROs over trained counselors creates a culture in schools of law and order rather than safety and well-being, which is only exacerbated in communities of color.

In the so-called “Land of the Free,” 639 people are incarcerated per every 100,000 of the national population, a rate higher than any other nation in the world. While there are many systemic causes that explain this, a substantial source of this phenomenon is the school-to-prison pipeline. The term refers to the disproportionate tendency of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated, in part due to an environment of criminalization of youth in schools created by SROs. A 2011 report by the Justice Policy Institute found that as the presence of “SROs in schools has increased, arrests and referrals to the juvenile justice system generally have also increased.” Children are facing a cold and harsh criminal justice system for offenses as minor as swearing or firing spit balls. These transgressions would otherwise have been handled by school administration, but instead are being taken over by law enforcement that then metes out excessive punishments. Kids are made an example of, when they should be offered intervention, counseling, and a shot at restorative justice.

Additionally, there is little information on Pleasanton’s SROs available to the public. Press releases from PPD from 2016-2020 only mention SROs twice: once in January 2016 and once in August 2016. In both cases, SROs arrived after the incidents had taken place, not to prevent these events from occurring. This is the case with most of the incidents SROs deal with — they only intervene when it’s too late. The official Pleasanton Police Department’s website recently published a list of enacted and upcoming reforms to the department, yet this information is just as vague, leaving massive room for interpretation when there should be concrete proof.

Valuable education opportunities, such as special education programs, are also undermined by the culture of policing in schools towards the disabled. According to a 2019 study by Strategies for Youth, California law only requires SRO training on adolescent development as part of “developmentally appropriate, trauma-Informed, and racially equitable” standards, or DATIRE. No training is given on topics such as special education, school laws, or implicit bias. Does the PPD provide any of our SROs with training in these areas?

Have school resource officers become obsolete? It depends on what happens next.

As a short-term solution, school districts and cities must increase transparency and improve the curricula for SRO training and deployment. Both students and parents deserve more information of how our SROs are being trained and their actions on campus. The Pleasanton Police Department has failed on both counts, with their annual reports omitting SRO-involved incidents and a lack of publication regarding their training and values. Going forward, Pleasanton should begin to follow organizations such as the National Association of School Resource Officers, who advocate that any decisions regarding the use of SROs be a “locally determined and collaborative” effort, involving “input from students, parents, families, educators, school leaders, and the wider community.”

As for long-term solutions, many schools have already moved towards abolition. Within the Bay Area, in June 2020, the school boards of both West Contra Costa School District and Oakland Unified School District unanimously decided to terminate SRO contracts for future school years. After all, in the 200 school shooting incidents investigated by the Washington Post in 2018, only one was stopped by an SRO: in 2001. With these failures, districts are instead finding alternative plans or reallocating budgets from SROs toward proven measures of student achievement and safety.

The 20th anniversary of Columbine passed early last year, yet we must ask: have school resource officers stepped up to their roles during that time, or have they caused more harm than good? For the sake of students and their families, we must reconsider the role of school resource officers, and we will see what our city council decides by the time we vote in November.