Roll Call: Weighing the advantages, disadvantages of school resource officers

police car lights

The brutal massacre of students and staff at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, compels us as a nation to take a closer look not only at the overall situation and police response, but the school resource officer program.

The presence of law enforcement in schools has been controversial for decades. High-profile school shootings combined with concerns of rising violence rates among youth in the 1990s was a catalyst for federal funding for more police in schools, frequently referred to as school resource officers or school police officers. The explosion of SROs in schools goes back to 1999 in response to the Columbine High School shooting.

In Illinois, there is a push to remove police officers from school campuses entirely. There has been proposed legislation in Springfield over the past two years to do just that, but proposed legislation has not passed the General Assembly. That does not mean that legislators have dropped the issue. It continues to be pushed by some lawmakers throughout the legislative session.

There are many parents, activists and even school administrators themselves who are opposed to school resource officers and the school resource officer program. The term “pipeline to prison” is one that is used frequently to justify the elimination of school resource officers. This is a term used to catch headlines and sound bites and to get a viewpoint across from a very specific group of individuals that want to eliminate police from schools.

I will say that over the years there have been some instances where school resource officers fully failed in their mission. The issue in Uvalde is unfolding, but there are allegations that police waited 77 minutes to eliminate the threat. If that ends up being factual, that in itself will change the school resource officer program forever.

Another such failure was the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Facts involving the SRO response to that incident, or more specifically lack of response, are well documented and justified. However, I don’t believe in tossing out the baby with the bathwater.

Those who say school resource officer programs should be eliminated and too many minority students fall into the “pipeline to prison” must read the Aug. 19, 2020, study by Chicago Public Schools titled “Chicago Public Schools Propose Progressive Reforms to School Resource Officer, SRO Program Based on Feedback.”

The study outlines a reduction in school-based student arrests from school years 2012 through 2019. Reduction in arrests by Chicago police officers assigned to schools was dramatic. Black arrests were down 78%, Latino arrests were down 86% and there was an overall percentage drop of 80%. This was because of specific reforms that were put into the Chicago Public Schools SRO program.

In Illinois, the school resource officer program is monitored and certified by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board. There is a specific training requirement that all school resource officers must go through and be certified to be on the campuses.

What can we do to improve and enhance the school resource officer program? The first thing would be to actually put resources into it. SROs need the resources to do their specific job, including training in conflict resolution, educational programs, mental health services and other non-law enforcement traditional training.

Is there any evidence out there that the SRO programs are valuable? I would point to research done at Canada’s Carleton University. They conducted a two-year study of the SRO program in the Regional Municipality of Peel and the report concluded that for every dollar invested in the program, a minimum of $11.13 of social and economic value was created.

That same report listed numerous benefits in the program, including prevention and minimization of property damage to the school and surrounding areas; prevention of student injuries, even death, due to violence, drugs and overdose; reduction of need for schools to call 911; reduction in likelihood that a student will acquire a criminal record; increase in likelihood that students (mostly those with mental health issues) would get the help they needed from the school services and health care system; and increased feeling of safety among students and staff.

I’m not here to tell you there are not any problems with certain school resource officer programs, but I do not believe here in Illinois, or anywhere in our nation, that we should abandon this worthwhile community school program. The school resource officer is selected through a vigorous interview process, including with police and school officials, parents, PTO organizations and community. The SRO is a valuable part of the school campus and its community.

Final note: If it is determined that the police response in Uvalde, Texas, was faulty, poorly supervised by command personnel and communications between dispatch, police and students inside the school was non-existent, I’ll be right back in this column to address that issue. When the police succeed, I state that, but when police fail, I also own up to it.