School Resource Officers: Helping or Hurting Students and School Discipline?

Integrating Hiring, Training, and Deployment Criteria for School Resource Officers, School-based Police, and Security Guards into States’ ESEA-Required Bullying, Restraint, and Suspension Plans

Dear Colleague,

Knowing that schools are microcosms of their communities, and given the ready availability of cell phones and social media, more and more real examples of school-based student violence have occurred and “gone viral.” Among the most controversial examples recently are those involving School Resource Officers (SROs), school-based police officers, and/or school security staff.

Just last month, a Baltimore school district police officer slapped, kicked, and swore at a young black man outside a Baltimore high school, sparking a criminal investigation and cries for federal authorities to intervene.

Most of us have seen the October, 2015 video of the SRO in South Carolina who ripped a high school girl from her chair and body slammed her to the ground after she refused to follow some school rules.

Also in October, 2015, a 14-year-old Texas boy was choked to the floor by an SRO called in to stop a gym fight.

And in November, 2014, a 52-pound 8-year-old Covington, KY elementary student- - who suffered from ADHD and PTSD- - was cuffed above the elbows for about 15 minutes by an SRO because he was having some behavioral difficulties in his classroom.

Significantly, in testimony in a Seclusions and Restraints Hearing before the House of Representative’s Committee on Education and Labor, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that there were hundreds of documented incidents between 1990 and 2009 of school students- - most of them with disabilities- - who had been forcefully restrained.

Moreover, this report identified 20 cases that ended in death.

School Security Personnel in US Schools

According to the 2013-2014 Public School Safety and Discipline report published by the National Center for Educational Statistics, there are more than 43,000 SROs and other sworn police officers- - and an additional 39,000 security guards- - working in our country’s 84,000 public schools.

The statement above is telling because there are at least three different groups of individuals who are responsible for school security besides a school’s administrators:

  • School Resource Officers (SROs) who are typically employed by the school, and who may or may not be deputized by the local police force.
  • Police Officers who are employed by the local police force, and are assigned to selected schools.
  • Security Guards who may be school employees or may be employed by a privately-owned security company that is under contract with a school.

Significantly: Relative to training in education, child and adolescent psychology, cultural sensitivity and understanding, and student disabilities and mental health, numerous investigative reports have noted the following:

  • According to a November, 2015 article in The Atlantic, only 12 states have laws that specify training requirements for officers who are assigned or deployed to classrooms. In looking across these state laws, there are numerous inconsistencies, and many of these laws do not require training on how to understand and interact with children and adolescents (in contrast to adults).
  • According to Nina Salomon, a senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, “All (police) officers are getting a certain level of training that they’re required to get as police officers. The additional training. . . on youth development, on working with youth, on prevention and de-escalation- - hasn’t typically been received by the majority of law enforcement that work with youth inside a school building, or that are called to campus.”
  • According to a February 2013 study by Strategies for Youth, in 37 states, police academies spent 1% or less of their total training hours on juvenile justice issues. In five of these states, police academies do not require any training focused specifically on juvenile justice issues. And in all of these states - - except Tennessee (which does provide specific training for officers deployed to schools)- - police recruits were not taught how to respond to children with mental health, trauma-related, or special education-related disorder or disability issues.
  • Founded in 1991, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) provides a five-day “Basic SRO Course” and a three-day “Advanced SRO Course,” along with another three-day “School Security Officer Course.”

Unfortunately, unless required by a school district, these courses are voluntary. Moreover, a November, 2011 report, Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools, by the Justice Policy Institute noted that these three or five day courses are unlikely to offset the law enforcement training and mindset of most school-based police. Critically, most security officers working in schools are typically former community-based law enforcement professionals- - with training focused on interacting with criminals, not students.

Given all of this. . . it seems clear that- - on a state regulatory level- - SROs, school-assigned police officers, and privately hired school security guards:

  • Are inconsistently (or not) regulated relative to qualifications, training, certification, ongoing professional development, or evaluation;
  • Probably have little formal training- - from educators or school psychologists- - in education and learning, school discipline and classroom management, and child and adolescent development, mental health, and disabilities; and
  • Approach their jobs more from a law enforcement perspective than a school management and student self-management perspective.

Additional Results? The Disproportionate Treatment of Students

The results of the circumstances above are that more students across the country are referred to law enforcement at earlier ages, these students then become involved in the juvenile justice system more often, and a disproportionate number of students of color and those with disabilities are being punished, restrained, and arrested.

This last outcome parallels the disproportionality data- - once again, across the country- - relative to teacher referrals to the office for discipline and administrator decisions on student suspensions and expulsions.

Indeed, using the most recently available U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data from the 2011-21012 school year:

  • 27% of all students referred in their schools to law enforcement and 31% of all students arrested were African-American- - even though these students represented only 16% of the total student enrollment; and
  • Students with disabilities accounted for approximately 25% of all students arrested and referred to law enforcement- - even though these students represented only 12% of the total student enrollment.

In addition, 75% of students with disabilities were physically restrained at school, 58% were placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities.

A National and State Call to Action

This past December, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)- - also known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). On the whole, this legislation returns the responsibility for most of the operational facets of effective school and schooling (as well as school improvement) to every state’s department of education and its district and school partners.

As part of its legislation, ESEA/ESSA requires states to develop plans on how they will reduce bullying and harassment, student restraints and seclusions, and student suspensions and expulsions- - all of which disproportionately affect students of color and with disabilities.

While a range of factors affect student discipline rates, a number of studies suggest that the racial and disability-related disparities are not because these students exhibit more frequent or more serious social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.

Many times, these students receive administrative office discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions for minor offenses- - the same minor offenses that classroom teachers and instructional staff handle by themselves when exhibited by other non-minority, general education students.

Moreover, many times SROs, school-based police, or security officers are called in to “respond” to students of color and with disabilities, and their presence and/or tactics sometimes escalate minor problems into a major crisis or law enforcement events.

Given the focus of this Blog, then, it is recommended that every state department of education include an SRO, school-based police, and school security professional component in their ESEA/ESSA-required bullying and harassment, student restraints and seclusion, and student suspension and expulsion plans.

Moreover, the following employment and continuing employment criteria should be included in those plans. . .

That all school security professionals (whether an SRO, school-based police officer or school security guard):

  • Have at least a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university
  • Pass at least one 3-credit college or university course (or the equivalent- - 45 hours) in the following areas: school-based multicultural processes and practices; child and adolescent development; child and adolescent abnormal development, mental health, and disabilities
  • Pass the National Association of School Resource Officers’ (NASRO) 40-hour Basic School Resource Officer training course (or the equivalent) prior to employment and deployment

[Course Contents: Foundations of School Based Law Enforcement, Ethics and the SRO, The SRO as a Teacher/Guest Speaker, Diversity, Understanding Special Needs Students, Social Media, School Law, The SRO as an Informal Counselor/Mentor, Understanding the Teen Brain, Violence and Victimization: Challenges to Development, Sex Trafficking of Youth, Effects of Youth Trends and Drugs on the School Culture and Environment, Threat Response: Preventing Violence in School Settings, School Safety and Emergency Operations Plans, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design]

  • Pass the NASRO 24-hour Advanced SRO or Supervisor training course (or the equivalent) within two years of one’s initial employment (this is already a law in South Carolina)
  • Pass a certified training program (3 days minimum) in student conflict prevention and resolution, de-escalation and nonviolent crisis intervention, and restraint reduction
  • Attend at least 60 hours of ongoing and documented professional development in the content areas above every five years
  • Be registered or certified by their state department of education through the districts employing them (who are responsible for ensuring that the above criteria are met) prior to any new employment

  • In addition, the following principles and/or practices should be included in the ESEA/ESSA-required state plans to be implemented at the district level. . .
  • That all school security professionals:
  • Sign, at the beginning of each year as an addendum to their contract, a district-developed Job Description that emphasizes that their primary job is to keep schools safe from threats and not to engage in routine student discipline situations or events
  • Respond to the directions of classroom teachers (when in the classroom) and administrators (when in the common areas of the school) if asked to be involved in non-threat situations
  • Respond to the directions of administrators, when present, during high potential or actual active threat situations; and follow the School Crisis Plan when administrators are not present during actual active threat situations
  • Be standing and active members of their school’s School Discipline/School Climate Committee, as well as its School Crisis Team
  • Know and understand the District’s Student Code of Conduct, while also participating in any initiatives related to decreasing disproportionality and increasing interventions for students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges
  • Know, understand, and participate in the school’s positive discipline, motivation and accountability, teasing and bully prevention, student behavioral incentive, and parent and community outreach systems and activities


This blog message has called for a more planned, comprehensive, and psychoeducationally-relevant process of hiring, preparing, deploying, integrating, and supervising SROs, school-based police, and school security guards.

When properly trained and integrated into a district or school’s positive and preventive discipline, behavior management, and student self-management system, these professionals are important additional resources that help keep students, staff, and schools safe, positive, and secure. At the same time, their primary job is to keep schools safe from threats, and not to become involve in routine student discipline situations.

This latter point is especially important as many minor school discipline offenses could technically meet the statutory requirements for some non-violent community-based misdemeanors.

In the end, school staff and administrators should be fully responsible for and responsive to these minor discipline offenses, as well as the vast majority of the significant offenses that are in most districts’ Codes of Conduct. And in most cases, the SROs, school-based police, and school security guards should take the lead of the school administrators and staff.

Critically, we need to remember that these professionals are working in schools. They need to understand and conform to the culture of the school and the educational process. We will lose this culture and process if a “police mentality” becomes the prevailing mode of thought and operation in our classrooms.

I appreciate everyone who takes some of their professional and personal time to read and reflect on my thoughts. My goal in writing this Blog is to critically analyze current research, practice, and implementation in our districts, schools, and classrooms, while using a “common sense” empirical and experiential approach to help make them meaningful.

I also appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country. And I always look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments.

Feel free to contact me at any time. Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.

Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.