Our Turn: SROs and the impact of policing in schools

For the Monitor
Published: 4/19/2021 2:47:02 PM

The article “School Resource Officers: The ‘Gatekeepers’ of Juvenile Court Diversion” (Granite State News Collaborative, posted April 19 at concordmonitor.com) paints an inaccurate, incomplete picture of the role that police officers, called school resource officers (SROs), play in New Hampshire schools.

It ignores data-driven evidence and fails to question the unsustainable propensity to place society’s problems (mental health crises, substance misuse, and education deficits) at the feet of law enforcement, regardless of cost or result. We have put too much responsibility on police officers, trapping us in a false narrative that ultimately paints the role of SROs as partisan. It is not.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Safety, SROs are “school-based law enforcement officers” who endeavor to “build trust” with “the student body, reduce school safety issues, and promote perceptions of safety.” The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) advocates for SROs to fulfill a “triad” role encompassing three primary functions: educator, informal counselor and law enforcer. But SROs are police officers whose predominant training is “paramilitary in nature.” They are not trained child counselors or educators.

New Hampshire currently offers a basic SRO training through NASRO that spans only five days and a course on the complex topic of childhood mental health that lasts only three days. Moreover, there is at best inconsistent evidence that SROs make classrooms safer. New Hampshire Police Standards and Training suggests that SROs promote only “perceptions of safety,” that is, while SROs might not make schools safer, they might give some people a feeling that schools are safer.

What the research does show is a positive correlation between the presence of law enforcement officers in schools and negative effects and safety concerns, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities. Schools with law enforcement officers are more likely to arrest students for minor offenses.

In a study controlling for school poverty, researchers found that schools with an officer had five times as many arrests for disorderly conduct than schools without officers. (See Matthew Theriot’s article, “School Resource Officers and the Criminalization of Student Behavior.”)

Racial disparities in school policing are also persistent. A study found that schools with larger populations of students of color are more likely to suspend, expel and arrest students of color and less likely to connect them to psychological or behavioral services that can address the root cause of their behavior. (See David Ramey’s article, “The Social Structure of Criminalized and Medicalized School Discipline.”)

This approach criminalizes students of color, disconnecting them from necessary behavioral, mental health and medical services. Even more alarmingly, these policies set children on a path to prison by introducing them to the juvenile justice system.

Racial inequities in the application of discipline are present in many New Hampshire schools. In 2017, Hispanic and Latino students comprised 6.3% of students at Portsmouth High School, yet constituted 19.3% of in-school suspensions. (U.S. Dept. of Education, Civil Rights Data is available at ocrdata.ed.gov.)

In that same year, at Central High School in Manchester, Black students made up 12.5% of the student population and Hispanic and Latino students 21.5%. Yet Black students made up 33% of in-school suspensions and 16.1% of out-of-school suspensions. Hispanic and Latino students were 38.3% of those receiving out-of-school suspensions. In Concord, while Black students made up only 9% of the population at Concord High in 2017, they accounted for 20.2% of out-of-school suspensions.

These same disparities exist in policing. According to national, state and county data, Black and Hispanic individuals are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates in New Hampshire, and at more disproportionate rates than Black and Hispanic people nationwide. It is therefore unsurprising that when our education and policing systems collide, racial disparities persist?

At Portsmouth, multiracial students constituted 3.5% of the student population, but nearly 10% of referrals to law enforcement. At Central, 16% of law enforcement referrals involved Black students and 32.1% were Hispanic and Latino. At Concord, Black students comprised 18.6% of referrals to law enforcement. In 2015, Concord referred an astounding number of students of all races, 208, to law enforcement. Each of these high schools has at least one school resource officer.

Students with disabilities fared no better. At Portsmouth in 2017, students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) comprised 16% of the student population, but 38.5% of in-school suspensions, 30.6% of out-of-school suspensions and 33.3% of referrals to law enforcement. At Central, the outcomes were the same. Students with IDEA disabilities comprised 14.3% of the student population, but 100% of in-school suspensions, 23.2% of out-of-school suspensions and 27.2% of referrals to law enforcement.

Why does this matter? The permanent presence of law enforcement in schools leads to more discipline and over criminalization of student behavior in schools. The students who are forced out of schools with harsh punishments are often children who are at risk. These children disproportionately end up in the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system.

New Hampshire cities and towns must recognize these outcomes and disparities. It is time that we shift our focus away from policing students and toward new trauma-informed approaches and social emotional learning that has proven to reduce school discipline and build healthy, safe communities.

Critically, personnel must reflect the breadth of identities reflected in our student and community populations. After all, a primary theme of the NH Bar News article is that the majority of “young offenders” and “juvenile suspects” (we like to call them children) are students who need guidance in “good decision-making.”

We must provide our schools with the teaching and education-based counseling resources to discharge their obligations to prepare children of all races, abilities and backgrounds to lead productive, fulfilling lives as adults. And we must bear in mind the data on disparate treatment of historically marginalized groups when we discuss the issue of law enforcement in our schools.

(Anna Elbroch, Stephanie Hausman, Marta Hurgin, Elizabeth Lahey, Lisa Wolford, Kate Vaughn are New Hampshire lawyers with expertise in prosecution, special education, juvenile justice, civil rights, indigent criminal defense and school board matters and litigation. Several are also the parents of school-aged children.)

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