In the wake of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the Florida Legislature mandated that every K-12 public school in the state have a school resource officer (SRO) on campus. While it might seem like SROs are a no-brainer for school safety, the data shows that school police fail to make schools safer and accelerate the school-to-prison pipeline for low-income African-American and Hispanic youth.
A recent study by Associate Dean Kenneth Alonzo Anderson at the School of Education at Howard University demonstrated as much. The study looked at 430 middle schools in North Carolina, before and after the state expanded its SRO programs in 2013. Despite devoting $23 million to hiring and training more SROs, Anderson found that the program made no measurable difference across a range of reported disciplinary actions, including school violence, drug use and weapon possession.
In a summary article for the Brookings Institution, Anderson warned that in the absence of measurable benefits, more police in schools can have needless negative consequences, particularly for marginalized students.
Large disparities already exist in Florida’s school arrests around race, class and ability, as documented in a 2016 report from the investigative journalism organization Center for Public Integrity. By putting students in close proximity to law enforcement, and thus the broader criminal justice system, SROs can deepen these disparities even further.
A smart approach to school violence requires a deeper understanding of its root causes. Anderson’s study also found that one of the biggest predictors of disciplinary problems is poor performance in class—often lying at a complex intersection of poverty, past trauma, distrust in school officials and alienation from course curriculum.
Each of these challenges requires a comprehensive and caring approach — one centered on amplifying student voices, meeting student needs and aligning class content with students’ lived experiences. None of them can be solved with handcuffs.
Parents, students and advocates are right to be concerned about school safety. Nobody wants to feel unsafe, especially not in a place where children learn.
However, the evidence shows that making Florida’s schools safer will require a lot more than armed guards.
Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.