The Case Against SROsHardampaul KalerWord Count: 2,056December 21, 2017Introduction With the Toronto District School Board’s recent decision to end the police presence in Toronto district high schools, major debates surrounding the legitimacy, efficacy and practicality of the program are being had.
What kind of state sends armed police officers to patrol the hallways of the nation’s high schools? What kind of message does a police presence in high schools with large numbers of racialized and vulnerable youth send to those kids and to the communities they come from? What does it do to those kids and the communities they come from? – two of the most salient questions which lie at the heart of the debate on police presence in Canadian schools. The following essay will examine this current event and its underlying policy question and argue that the Toronto District School Board made the right decision choosing to end the armed police presence in TDSB schools. That the evidence shows that police presence in high schools does not do what it purports to do (i.e. Make kids safer) and ends up creating hostility and animosity between at-risk youth and police, much of which ends up needlessly involving students with the criminal justice system.
School resource officers Police officers in Toronto schools are a special class of police officer known as a School Resource Officer (SRO). According to the National Centre on Education Statistics in the United States, a School Resource Officer is “a career law enforcement officer, with sworn authority, deployed in community-oriented policing, and assigned by the employing police department or agency to work in collaboration with school and community-based organizations (“Education…
, 2011, 2).” These officers are accountable first to the local police department and second to the schools where they work (“Education…
, 2011, 2). SRO’s, importantly, have the power to overrule a school administrator when it comes to arresting or detaining a student (“Education..
., 2011, 2). On paper, an SRO is tasked with carrying out some of the functions of a guidance counselor or social worker (including mentoring and/or advising) but is also authorized to carry a weapon and make arrests (“Education…, 2011, 2).
Statistics show, however, that the overwhelming majority of an SRO’s time is spent on law enforcement activities (“Education…, 2011, 2). SROs don’t make schools safer Crime rates, in general, have been dropping over the past 20 years, and in schools in the United States, the rate of self-reported incidences of violence and theft per 1,000 students has dropped 69 percent from 155/1,000 in 1993 to 47/1,000 in 2008 (“Education.
.., 2011, 10). Many of the studies done over that time period on the relationship between increased SRO presence and declining school violence shows that there is no correlation suggesting the increased police presence has been responsible for decreased crime in schools (“Education…, 2011, 11).
Analysis of many SRO programs also found that both schools with and without SRO programs tended to experience similar mean crime rates following the implementation of the program (“Education…
, 2011, 11). Research that has come out over the last few years has actually demonstrated that school safety can actually be improved and achieved without the presence of SROs (“Education…
, 2011, 11). The keys to a safe school environment in the absence of SROs are having strict and fair rules that are predictably enforced, coupled with teachers, counselors and other support workers who are dedicated to the supervision and guidance of the students (“Education…, 2011, 11). The Consortium on Chicago School Research found something similar. Its research established that school safety was much more predicated on the relationships between staff and students and staff and parents. It also found that schools populated by students from disadvantaged areas and socioeconomic backgrounds that had strong student-faculty relationships were actually safer than schools populated by students from more privileged backgrounds where faculty-student relationships were weaker.
The quality of adult-youth relationships is clearly the linchpin when it comes to safety in schools (“Education…, 2011, 12).
These relationships amount to what is known in the sociological literature as “school bonding” or “school connectedness.” It involves things like students caring about an investment in their school and their sense of attachment to it, their feeling of belonging among peer groups and how attached they feel to teachers and other school staff (Theriot, 2016, 447). Research has indicated that the more a student feels disconnected from their school and from their teachers, the more likely that student is to act violently (Theriot, 2016, 447).
Many adolescents who act out violently at school report feeling lonely, isolated, and generally dislike school (Theriot, 2016, 447). This is backed up by social control theory which views school as the primary place in which youth are socialized and learn respect for lawfulness and moral order (Theriot, 2016, 448). Students with strong interpersonal skills and who are successful in the school environment will be rewarded by the system which ends up enforcing a stronger bond with and commitment to the school (Theriot, 2016, 448). Conversely, the students who do not have the skills to succeed in the structured school environment will not be rewarded, will not form the attachment that the aforementioned group of students do and will, therefore, be more inclined to eschew the rules and regulations of the school environment and lash out (Theriot, 2016, 448). Other studies have found that having things like police officers, security guards and metal detectors in schools end up decreasing feelings of connectedness and contribute to feelings of an adversarial relationship with the school (Theriot, 2016, 448). Overkill and counterproductive methods Additionally, SROs in schools can end up irreparably damaging the relationships between youth and police. One of the most unfortunate consequences of many SRO programs is that they end up creating a climate in which police officers are called in to carry out discipline that is not commensurate with the offence. Kupchik (2010) conducted a qualitative analysis of SROs which suggested that an increased presence of police officers can end up creating an environment where minor offences receive harsh discipline, even legal action and legal threats when the severity of the offence merits something much less heavy-handed (Na & Gottfredson, 2011, 4).
The research has suggested that school principals tend to rely on the police officers in their schools when there is an uncertainty about which laws apply to certain disciplinary situations (Na & Gottfredson, 2011, 4). Police officers in schools are also more likely to be inclined to apply the law and to pursue legal action across a much wider spectrum of cases as their job demands that they uphold the law. This is magnified by zero-tolerance policies in many jurisdictions which obligate police officers to apply the law when the law when an officer understands a law has been violated (Na & Gottfredson, 2011, 5). Police in schools are also in a position to redefine behavioural problems as criminal ones, in which case teachers are often expected to defer to police authority and responsibility is shifted away from educators, principals and administrators (Na & Gottfredson, 2011, 5)., Predictably, much of the research into the issue “overkill” found that heavy-handedness by SROs disproportionately affected minority youths (Na & Gottfredson, 2011, 5).
Having a police presence in schools, especially when racialized and minority students are the most vulnerable to mistreatment, means that there is considerable opportunity for a wedge to be driven between racialized youth and police. Students who already feel they and their communities are in an adversarial relationship with police may find it harder to learn and attend school if they feel intimidated or specifically targeted by a police presence at school (Nance, 2016, 154). This can end up leading more further stress, further distrust and more disorder and violence (Nance, 2016, 154). Furthermore, empirical studies have indicated that the SRO program can end up contributing to what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” By involving students in the criminal justice system for infractions or behavioral issues that don’t necessarily warrant legal action, the lives of students and their families may end up suffering because of the heavy hand of the law (Nance, 2016, 154). This is especially problematic in Canada where nearly 82 percent of all youth gang members are from visible minority groups (Rossiter & Rossiter, 2009, 2).
Getting kids who are already at risk of young gang involvement needlessly caught up in the criminal justice system may end up making a life of crime a forgone conclusion. Data gathered from hundreds of schools in the United States shows that the regular presence of police officers in schools is “predictive of greater odds that school officials will refer students to law enforcement for lower-level offences that arguably should be handled by educators themselves (Nance, 2016, 155).” Lower level offences include things like fighting without a weapon, theft and vandalism (Nance, 2016, 155). Additionally, empirical data from hundreds of schools throughout the United States also demonstrates that SROs frequently make disciplinary action a legal matter, even when teachers and school administrators protest (Nance, 2016, 155). SROs are frequently not equipped (either emotionally, or through training) to handle the more nuanced and sensitive school disciplinary action and too often use the explicit letter of the law to impose rigid disciplinary action on students when it is not required (Nance, 2016, 156). The benefits While the evidence that police programs in schools are unnecessary, it would be irresponsible to demonize them altogether.
One of the major benefits of SRO programs is that it provides teachers with much easier access to police officers and vice versa. While a more culturally and socially sensitive approach to discouraging and addressing antisocial behavior in schools is something that should be pursued for its own sake, it is not to say that there will never be a need for police intervention on school grounds. Schools are filled with diverse human beings, after all, and they represent broad societal cross sections. Simply taking a more gentle approach to handling things like bullying, theft, assault etc. Does not mean that it is going to stop those things from happening altogether. There will always be a need for relationships between law enforcement and teachers, and SRO programs provide teachers and police officers with an opportunity to share information and tackle disciplinary problems together (Lamont et al., 2011, 17).
It also allows police officers an opportunity to work closely with youth, especially problem youth. One of the major concerns when it comes to SRO involvement in the education system is that ends up stigmatizing police officers and establishing a poor relationship between at-risk youth and the police from an early age. As with most things, however, it all depends on the individual. As previously mentioned, strong adult-student relationships in schools are key to increasing student safety. There is no reason why police officers who are genuinely interested in making a positive difference in the lives of students can’t constitute part of those strong adult-student relationships. SRO programs also give officers an opportunity to get to know the families of the students who go to the schools they police, helping to establish relationships within the community and build social capital that might otherwise be difficult to achieve (Lamont et al., 2011, 19).
Conclusion While SRO programs are able to provide teachers and law enforcement with valuable opportunities for communication and many SROs are, undoubtedly, primarily concerned with the development and well-being of the students they interact with and police, at the end of the day, the thrust of the SRO program is creating safer schools and establishing fruitful relationships between youth and the police. The literature examined in writing this essay has demonstrated that that is simply not the case. Not only does an increased police presence fail to contribute to increasing overall school safety, ignoring the fact that the fundamental component of school safety is strong relationships between educators, administrators and students, it can end up undermining the establishment of those relationships by creating an environment where students feel overly-surveilled, controlled and at odds with law enforcement. Furthermore, police presence can end up disproportionately targeting minority and at-risk youth, contributing to feelings of animosity between police and the minority communities and exacerbating the over-representation of minority groups in the criminal justice system, introducing them to it while they are young and fomenting resentment and distrust which ultimately eats away at the fabric of our society. References(2011). “Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools.
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