• Center for Problem oriented policing

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Deciding Whether and How to Assign Police Officers to Schools

Police Can Improve Safety in Schools

Tackling problems in schools does not have to result in the initiation of school resource officer programs. Through targeted problem solving efforts, some of the problems that police can reduce include graffiti, theft from lockers, bullying in schools, and truancy.

Before deciding whether to assign police officers to schools, you should develop a clear picture of the specific safety concerns at issue; it is this understanding that will help you determine which responses are appropriate and how best way to focus available funds and resources.§

§ Under the Safe Schools Act, a school safety team is required at schools, and is responsible for developing a school safety plan. This team, then, perhaps with some adjustments to membership, should have lead responsibility for the planning process.

Be Specific—Understand Your School's Safety Needs

Schools are generally safe, although this varies widely by location and some form of crime and violence can and does occur in nearly all schools.27 The nature of crime and violence varies by school type—whether urban or rural, small or large. An effective safety plan depends on the school's specific public safety needs.28

A National Perspective on School Safety

In the 2005–06 school year, an estimated 54.8 million students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Preliminary data show that among youth ages 5–18, there were 17 school-associated violent deaths from July 1, 2005 through June 30, 2006 (14 homicides and 3 suicides). In 2005, among students ages 12–18, there were about 1.5 million victims of nonfatal crimes at school, including 868,100 thefts and 628,200 violent crimes (simple assault and serious violent crime). There is some evidence that student safety has improved. The victimization rate of students ages 12–18 at school declined between 1992 and 2005. However, violence, theft, drugs, and weapons continue to pose problems in schools. During the 2005–06 school year, 86 percent of public schools reported at least one violent crime, theft, or other crime. In 2005, 8 percent of students in grades 9–12 reported being threatened or injured with a weapon within the previous 12 months, and 25 percent reported that drugs were made available to them on school property. In the same year, 28 percent of students ages 12–18 reported having been bullied at school during the previous 6 months.

From Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2007

As with the United Kingdom's Safer Schools Partnership, research on school violence in the United States indicates that effective school safety efforts require "a holistic approach that involves collaboration and partnership among schools, families, and community agencies."29 Thus, a safety planning team should include administrators, teachers and other school staff, parents, students, and community members.30

Safety plans should take into account factors that relate to disorder in schools, including location, community characteristics, demographics, and the physical, social, and academic environment of the school.31 In addition, plans should include short and long term responses to school safety; police should be involved in both.32 Although police are an important component of an overall safety plan, they should not be the only component. Similarly, the SRO is but one way for police to impact school safety. Stakeholders need to decide what will work best in any given situation.

Use Data Smartly

The planning team first needs to collect data about school safety, which will clarify and strengthen the team's observations. Data collection should include a review of all aspects of the school security environment: persistent crime and disorder issues; physical and environmental considerations; threat assessments; and disaster planning. There are a variety of ways such data can be collected and assessed, including through statistical analysis of school disciplinary statistics and community crime and violence data, community forums, surveys, and interviews with key informants.33

Types of information you might use include the following:

  • School data: incident reports, disciplinary reports and referrals, and suspension and attendance records
  • Police data, including field contacts, calls for service, and crime and arrest reports§
  • Student, school staff, and parent surveys
  • Community crime and violence data
  • Benchmark to other schools like yours.§§

§ Official data on crime rates have limitations, including the underreporting to the police of crimes occurring on school grounds (Kingery and Coggeshall 2001; Turk 2004).

§§ Primary schools, middle schools, secondary schools, and community colleges and universities all present different needs and challenges. 

A note on data: more comprehensive data such as described above are important for a planning team who needs a full picture of school safety issues. To address specific problems, police should pinpoint the exact nature of the problems through these kinds of data:

  • Location: cafeterias, hallways, outside
  • Time of day
  • Age groups
  • Participants
  • Types of behavior.

It is also helpful to map out safety issues to obtain a visual picture of patterns and trends.§

§ You can build a map of your school by downloading software at http://www.schoolcopsoftware.com.

School Safety Data Sources

There are a number of national sources of school safety data. Data are often broken into categories, such as urban/rural; age groups; male/female. These can be helpful in identifying where a school stands compared to other schools with similar characteristics.

National data sources:

  • National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)
  • School Crime Supplement (SCS) to the National Crime Victimization Survey
  • School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS)
  • Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS)
  • Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)

For state data, the state attorney general or child services agency can often provide information. Locally, school districts, law enforcement, social service agencies, and colleges and universities can be useful sources.

Develop Safety Goals

Once the school's safety needs are understood, specific safety goals must be established. These should pertain directly to the needs of the school and be specific enough to address the issues at hand. For instance, a goal of reducing the total amount of crime at the school is probably too broad to be useful in developing meaningful strategies. Instead, the planning team should focus on specific types of criminal or disorderly activity. Responses should then be selected and tailored to tackle these specific problems in the specific contexts.

Local implementers of SRO programs need to better link their activities to school safety goals. Currently, most SRO programs are not instituted because of specific safety needs. Instead, one large survey found that most school principals reported starting an SRO program because of national media attention on school safety whereas most police chiefs gave the availability of grant funding as their reason for assigning SROs.34 Although media attention and the availability of grant funds might indicate a general school safety concern, they do not provide specifics as to safety needs in a particular school. In order to determine whether resources are being used effectively, a clear understanding of safety needs is necessary.

Depending on circumstance, some schools may not require SROs. It's important to justify the implementation of an SRO in response to a thorough analysis of the problem(s) a school is facing. Then resources can be distributed accordingly; it may be better to focus on assigning a few SROs to schools with chronic problems than to evenly distribute SROs among all schools thereby targeting some schools that have no problems whatsoever.

Develop a School Safety Plan

After safety goals are established, the planning team should next design a targeted safety plan. Strategies should be selected on the basis of the identified problems and could include the use of a SRO. If an SRO is to be used, his or her activities should address specific safety issues. For instance, if the officer is going to teach, classes should be focused on the safety concerns of the school. If an officer is going to be a student mentor, the officer should select children involved in the type of crime or disorderly conduct that is being targeted. It is critical that the SRO knows the safety needs of the school and tailors his or her activities specifically to address those needs (see Figure 1 below).

There are many ways to have substantive school-police collaborations and police can play a number of valuable roles in a school system even if there is no SRO permanently assigned to the school. These can include:

  • Problem-solving partnerships that pair officers with school personnel
  • Situational crime prevention, including the use of physical barriers, security technology, and access control
  • Participation in holistic efforts to decrease risk factors associated with violence or to increase protective factors at the individual, family, school, peer, and community level
  • Technical assistance partnerships that focus on safety planning, crisis response planning, threat assessment, and security and safety audits
  • Sponsorship of youth activities and periodic in-school trainings and presentations.

In addition, police can address any number of issues that fall within the traditional police role, including the threatened or actual use of weapons, other physical violence, disorderly conduct and hooliganism, the identification and disposal of hazardous or illegal materials, and criminal and disorderly behavior that take place on or immediately outside school grounds.35

Figure 1. Process for Addressing School Safety.
Figure 1. Process for Addressing School Safety.


School Resource Officer Program Implementation

Although there are a variety of ways for police to be involved with schools, school-police planning teams might choose to assign an officer to the school. Due to the lack of research currently available on SRO programs, it is not possible to provide one-size-fits-all recommendations for implementing a program for maximum effectiveness. Instead, information about processes and partnerships that have worked well may suggest promising practices in SRO program development.

Issues to Address

  • Components that are essential to effective school-police problem solving include:
  • Deciding to work together in a partnership
  • Setting common goals
  • Developing a memorandum of understanding
  • Maintaining the relationship through regular dialogue.

Potential Challenges36, §

§ Operating protocols are discussed in more detail later in this guide. A sample protocol is included in the appendix.

Before agreeing to establish an SRO program, schools and police departments should be aware of potential pitfalls. There are institutional obstacles on both sides that can be either philosophical or operational in nature. Philosophical conflicts often relate to the differing organizational cultures of police departments and schools. Police are focused on public safety, schools on education. These different perspectives on school safety can be challenging for an SRO. Many school-based police officers must play dual roles, navigating between school and police cultures.37

Operational obstacles that can threaten the success of an SRO program include a lack of resources for the officer such as time constraints or a lack of relevant training. Police turnover and reassignment is also a challenge. These challenges can usually be addressed if the proper framework is in place. However, this can require in-depth discussions and negotiations as well as a commitment to long term success. Memoranda of understanding can be helpful tools in negotiating such partnership issues.

Selecting and Training SROs

Officers in schools are highly visible and regularly interact with students, faculty, and parents. They can serve as role models for students and can affect faculty and parental perceptions of police. Selecting officers who are likely to do well in the school environment and properly training those officers are two important components of SRO programs.

However, as with other aspects of SRO programs, there is no research to suggest what is most effective in SRO selection and training. Therefore, this guide cannot offer detailed recommendations in these areas. However, this guide does provide information gathered from surveys of SRO participants who have suggested that certain characteristics, skills, and knowledge are useful. Some key SRO characteristics are inherent; others can be developed through education and training. These key attributes include:

  • The ability to work effectively with students within the age range of the school
  • The ability to work with parents
  • The ability to work with principals and other school administrators
  • Knowledge of school-based legal issues
  • Knowledge of school resources
  • Knowledge of social service resources
  • An understanding of child development and psychology
  • An understanding of crime prevention through environmental design
  • Teaching skills
  • Public speaking skills
  • Knowledge of school safety technology and implementation.

Although it might be possible to recruit an officer with many of these skills, it is nonetheless important to provide training in these areas. Many participants in SRO programs have found training in the following areas to be useful:

  • Community policing in schools
  • Legal issues
  • Cultural fluency
  • Problem solving
  • Safe school preparation
  • Child development
  • Mental health intervention
  • Teaching and classroom management strategies.38

Allocating a School Resource Officer's Time

The lack of data makes it challenging to state with certainty which SRO activities are the most effective. It is most important that SROs choose activities that directly relate to specific school safety goals. For example, meeting with students each day is not directly tied to a safety goal; however, meeting with certain students—those who tend to be involved in specific safety problems—and discussing specific topics with them, such as services they might need or the reasons that the problems exist, can have a direct effect on school safety. Activities should be targeted to address identified needs.

Effective problem solving is one of the primary aspects of SRO work that has been shown to be successful in schools.39 Police problem solving involves changing the conditions that give rise to recurring crime problems, rather than simply responding to incidents as they occur. Under the problem-solving process, officers take a four step approach:

  • Scanning data to identify patterns in recurrent, patterned crime and disorder problems
  • Analyzing the causes of these patterns and problems in order to identify high impact points for intervention
  • Developing and implementing responses designed to reduce the frequency or severity of these problems based on crime analysis, emphasizing alternatives to arrest and incarceration and placing a high priority on prevention
  • Assessing the impact of these responses on the identified problems and refining interventions as necessary.§

§ For detailed discussions of the problem-solving process, see the POP Center website at www.popcenter.org.

SRO programs have been most effective where targeted strategies are implemented to address specific safety concerns. Examples of such strategies are presented in Table 1. Problem-Specific Guides on school-related problems also provide more detailed recommendations for how to address specific problems.

Table 1: Examples of Safety Problems Effectively Addressed by SROs40
Safety problemStrategies
Thefts in parking areaLimit access to property; develop enforceable parking policy; patrol parking area; involve students in reporting suspicious activities
Fights in cafeteriaIncrease SRO presence during lunch periods; adjust schedule and pattern of cafeteria entry and exit and seating arrangement
Illegal parking on roadways and at nearby businessesPost No Parking signs; collaborate with business owners to post notices; enforce ticketing and towing
Thefts from locker roomsIncrease frequency of patrol during periods that larcenies occur; install surveillance cameras
Graffiti and vandalismGive classroom presentations about penalties or requirements for restitution; increase awareness among students and parents; establish crime hotline or SRO website to receive anonymous tips
Smoking or drug use near schoolIncrease surveillance of area; work with property owners to post No Trespassing signs; enforce trespassing violations

Measuring the Value of Assigning Police Officers to Schools

Although the cost of assigning a sworn officer to a school will vary by jurisdiction, the average cost is substantial. Under the COPS Office grant program, each "cop in school" was funded at $125,000 in salaries and benefits over a three-year period. With an investment of this size, it is imperative to know whether the program is successfully meeting its stated goals.

Before beginning an SRO program, it is important to set out clearly articulated goals. SRO activities should be aligned to meet these goals. Regular assessment can identify any challenges to reaching safety goals and course corrections can be made.

Deciding what data to collect can be tricky. Often, the temptation is to count activities and events. Although this might help an SRO see where his or her time is being spent, it does not provide information about the effectiveness of the program. Instead, the goals of the program should drive the data collection. That is, you should first identify the outcome measure of interest (for example, whether the workload of patrol officers has changed as a result of SRO presence) and then determine which data would help to answer that question. Table 2 suggests data that could be collected for given safety goals. The list is generic; each suggestion is not necessarily appropriate for every community. The local school-police collaborative should identify the appropriate data for its own particular situation.

Table 2: SRO Program Goals and Measures41
Goal of programData that may help measure progress
Reduce crime and disorder in and around school
  • Crime incidents in school by type of incident, e.g., fights, bullying
  • Crime incidents in vicinity of school
  • Non-criminal disorder incidents in school
  • Non-criminal disorder incidents in vicinity of school
  • Victimization in school
  • Victimization in vicinity of school
Develop positive relationships with students, parents, and staff
  • Number of students advised; nature of counseling
  • Parent and child counseling sessions
  • Perceptions of relationships among students, police officers, school staff, parents, school neighbors, etc.
Relieve school-related workload on patrol officers
  • Police calls for service
  • Investigations, leads, clearances
  • Referrals to other agencies
  • Perceptions of patrol officers
Improve school attendance
  • Truancy rates

Improve student productivity

  • Student levels of fear
  • Student academic performance
Prevent violence in and around school
  • Number and severity of violent crime incidents
Improve overall school performance
  • Graduation rates
  • Academic proficiency
  • Delinquency rate
  • Severe discipline rate
South Euclid (Ohio) School Bullying Project

Spurred by the sense that disorderly behavior among students in South Euclid was increasing, the school resource officer (SRO) reviewed data regarding referrals to the principal's office. He found that the high school reported thousands of referrals a year for bullying and that the junior high school had recently experienced a 30 percent increase in bullying referrals. Police data showed that juvenile complaints about disturbances, bullying, and assaults after school hours had increased 90 percent in the past 10 years.

A researcher from Kent State University (Ohio) conducted a survey of all students attending the junior high and high school. Interviews and focus groups were conducted with students—identified as victims or offenders—teachers, and guidance counselors. Finally, the South Euclid Police Department purchased a Geographic Information System to conduct crime incident mapping of hotspots within the schools. The main findings pointed to four primary areas of concern: the environmental design of the school; teacher knowledge of and response to the problem; parental attitudes and responses; and student perspectives and behaviors.

The SRO worked in close collaboration with a social worker and the university researcher. They coordinated a Response Planning Team comprising many stakeholders that was intended to respond to each of the areas identified in the initial analysis. Environmental changes included modifying the school schedule and increasing teacher supervision of hotspots. Counselors and social workers conducted teacher training courses in conflict resolution and bullying prevention. Parent education included mailings with information about bullying, an explanation of the new school policy, and a discussion about what could be done at home to address the problems. Finally, student education included classroom discussions between homeroom teachers and students, as well as assemblies conducted by the SRO. The SRO also opened a substation next to a primary hotspot. The Ohio Department of Education contributed by opening a new training center to provide a nontraditional setting for specialized help.

The results from the various responses were dramatic. School suspensions decreased 40 percent. Bullying incidents dropped 60 percent in the hallways and 80 percent in the gym area. Follow-up surveys indicated that there were positive attitudinal changes among students about bullying and that more students felt confident that teachers would take action when a problem arose. Teachers indicated that training sessions were helpful and that they were more likely to talk about bullying as a serious issue. Parents responded positively, asking for more information about the problem in future mailings. The overall results suggest that the school environments were not only safer, but that early intervention was helping at-risk students succeed in school (South Euclid (Ohio) Police Department, 2001).

Establishing Operating Protocols

An operating protocol or memorandum of understanding is a critical element of an effective school-police partnership. It is essential to state clearly what the roles of the various agencies are and especially to delineate the reporting requirements of the SRO. This will help to establish clear expectations for all parties and to support the success of the program.

There are many descriptions of what protocols could include. The Safer Schools Partnership (SSP) in United Kingdom is a program with concrete evidence of success. SSP takes a broad view of police-school collaborations, as evidenced in the adapted list of protocols below. Additional operating protocol resources are provided in the Appendix.

The SSP protocols include the following:42

  • The level of commitment that each partner agency is expected to make in terms of resources and the relevant time frame for the delivery of such resources
  • The overall aims and objectives the partnership is to address, with clearly defined targets
  • A framework for information exchange, including data protection protocols
  • Child protection policies
  • A governance structure, including management framework and accountability
  • Mechanisms for working with existing crime prevention agencies
  • Procedures for liaising with outside agencies
  • A strategy for integrating the SRO program with other partners and agencies that provide services to children and young people.

Special Issues

Legal Issues

School-police collaborations, and particularly assigning police officers to schools, raise some legal issues that should be worked out prior to implementing the collaboration. These issues arise out of the potential conflict between the traditional roles of police and educators. Where teachers and school administrators are legally obliged to act in the best interests of the students (in loco parentis, or "in the place of parents"), this can conflict with police obligations to act as representatives of the state enforcing legal norms.43 Although school safety is a mutual goal, the core mission of school systems is education, whereas the core mission of police is safety; at times these missions can be difficult to reconcile.§

§ The website http://copsinschools.org/resources.cfm provides resources on legal issues for SROs.

The unique legal issues that arise in schools include the following: 44

Search and seizure. School administrators have different standards for search and seizure—of students' persons and lockers—than do police officers. There is a question of which search standard applies in school. In general, police officers must have probable cause, whereas school administrators need only a reasonable suspicion. Courts have come to conflicting decisions on this issue.

Interviews of juveniles. It is unclear whether students must be advised of their constitutional rights before a police interview at school, as well as whether students have the right to have parents or guardians present during police questioning.

Police access to students. Principals must be familiar with the policies that determine whether a police officer can have access to a student at school. These rules vary by state. In some states, for instance, schools need to notify parents when arrests occur or official legal documents are served. Similarly, parents must be notified before a student is interviewed, especially if the matter is not school-related. However, typically police are allowed access to students who may be victims of parental child abuse without notification.

Reporting obligations. Whether the SRO reports directly to and takes direction from a police supervisor or the school administrator affects who is entitled to receive information from the SRO about student activities, how the information will be handled, and ultimately whether the activities at issue will be tolerated or prevented. It is important to establish whether the school or police agency has authority and how conflicts between these agencies are to be resolved.

Privacy. The dissemination of student information might be limited by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If SROs are designated as school officials in the district's FERPA policy, they would have access to student education records. If they are not so designated, they would not have access.

Undercover Officers

Officers operating undercover in a school setting present special issues.45 Undercover officers can be an important safety tool, but they can erode trust between students and police, students and school administrators, and school administrators and police. One oft-cited benefit of an SRO program is the trust developed and the resulting information flow. Because there are significant drawbacks to the practice, police and school administrators should weigh the trade-offs before placing undercover officers in schools. Many districts will examine crime trends to determine the frequency and seriousness of crime before allowing police to proceed with such operations.46

The decision to place undercover officers in schools can be complicated by the presence of SROs. Any decision made in this regard should include a consideration of how undercover (or other special units) would work with SROs, including the effect that such an operation might have on the relationships among students, staff, and the SRO.

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