By T. Keung Hui The News & Observer
RALEIGH, NC — A new report looking at security in North Carolina schools is challenging the belief that putting more police officers in schools will make them safer.
The study of North Carolina middle schools found no relationship between increased funding for school resource officers and reduction in cases of reported school crimes. Kenneth Alonzo Anderson, the report’s author and an associate professor at Howard University, said legislators across the country should consider the findings before rushing to put more police officers in schools following mass acts of violence such as the school shooting incident in Parkland, Fla.
“I’m not recommending that we remove police officers from schools,” Anderson said in an interview. “However we need to evaluate what we do and change our philosophy on policing in schools.”
The new study, which was released in September and publicized this month by the Brookings Institution, was praised by the Education Justice Alliance, a local group which called last year for the removal of all police officers from Wake County schools. The group says there should be less police in schools because black and Latino students feel discriminated against by officers.
Letha Muhammad, the director of the Education Justice Alliance, said it’s a “kneejerk” response to call for more school resource officers after tragedies like Parkland.
“I’m a parent,” Muhammad said. “I have students in school so that emotional response is a normal response for human beings. But we have a responsibility to dig deeper than our emotional response and look at the data and facts to see if our emotional response is warranted or if there’s a different way to look at school safety.”
But Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said that school resource officers play an invaluable role in deterring school crime. He said the study’s findings goes against logic and common sense in how people react around police.
“When people see a police officer, most people are going to go away,” Canady said. “They’re not going to want to do a crime and get arrested.”
Canady’s group estimates there are 14,000 to 20,000 school resource officers nationwide. State education officials estimate there are 1,200 school resource officers in North Carolina.
School resource officers are armed officers assigned by law enforcement agencies to work in schools. They provide security, speak in classes and mentor students.
After the Parkland shooting, there was a flurry of legislation in North Carolina and nationwide to fund more school resource officers.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, proposed $10 million for more school resource officers as part of a school safety package that also included more school counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses. The Republican-led General Assembly included $12 million for more school resource officers in this year’s budget.
School lockdowns and safety drills have become more regular occurrences for students in North Carolina and nationally. North Carolina joined the list of states with a school shooting when a 16-year-old student was killed at Butler High School near Charlotte in October.
Amid the push for more SRO funding, Anderson looked at what happened after North Carolina lawmakers provided more funding for school resource officers in elementary and middle schools in 2013, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. Anderson has familiarity with the state since he received his PhD at N.C. State University and taught at Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh.
Anderson compared schools in the North Carolina districts that received additional SRO funding with those that did not get the extra money. He found no relationship between increased funding and reductions in the 16 disciplinary acts that must be reported to the state.
But Anderson found that schools that were smaller or had higher academic achievement had less school crime.
Anderson said that his findings should be considered along with other research which has found that some students don’t feel safe even though school resource officers are present.
“We need to look at the over policing of students,” Anderson said. “There’s clear evidence that SROs have thwarted mass acts of violence. But on the whole we need to look at the things we can do other than over policing.”
Some interventions could include more conflict resolution and character education training. However, Anderson said that school violence is often a societal issue and not just a schooling issue.
The impact SROs have had on deterring school shootings and stopping shootings may be limited.
Among the more than 225 incidents on campuses since 1999, the Washington Post’s analysis found at least 40 percent of the affected schools employed an officer. The Post only identified two cases in the past 19 years where a school resource officer gunned down an active shooter.
Anderson advocates for what he calls a “minimalist” approach that would reduce how much interaction officers would have with students. He suggests placing officers in discreet facilities, such as closed offices that are equipped with technology such as devices that can pinpoint gunshots, where they can respond to a mass act of violence.
In this minimalist approach, Anderson said other school personnel, who do not have arresting authority, such as principals and deans of discipline, can deal with minor disorderly conduct. Anderson said that the idea of school resource officers serving as counselors for students is “aspirational” and the reality may be overstated.
“They should let the professionals who are trained to [provide counseling] do their jobs,” Anderson said.
If school resource officers are used, Anderson said they should be focused on very specific and negotiated tasks such as reducing mass acts of violence.
But Canady of the National School Resource Officers Association, disagrees with Anderson’s minimalist approach. He said officers need to have daily interaction with students to pick up critical intelligence and to build positive relationships.
“There are so many things you can’t quantify because many SROs are deeply engaged in school safety practices and shoring up school safety matters,” Canady said.