We need better data to understand the impact of law enforcement officers in schools

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There is a renewed debate about putting police in schools, a practice that is now commonplace at public schools nationwide.

Although schools have received millions of federal and state dollars to support school resource officer programs, there is still much we don’t know — yet need to know — about how their presence affects increased student involvement in the criminal justice system.    

Our understanding is hampered, at least in part, by a lack of accurate data that would allow us to draw better conclusions — something the U.S. Department of Education can and should address.

Let me start by sharing what we know.

We know that the percentage of schools reporting regular contact with law enforcement officers has increased significantly over the past decade. In a recent study I conducted with Michael Heise of Cornell Law School that used department data, we found that in the 2009-2010 school year just over one-third of schools surveyed reported the presence of a law enforcement officer at least once a week. In the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent data available, that increased to just over half of the sampled schools.

This increase occurred even though it remains unclear whether school resource officer programs effectively reduce school crime and deter acts of violence. 

We also know that regular contact with law enforcement is strongly associated with a school’s proclivity to report students to law enforcement agencies for engaging in various disciplinary offenses. This finding holds true even after accounting for other school and student characteristics that might lead to increased police reports.

Our study is consistent with other studies that showed that the presence of a law enforcement officer at a school can transform how common disciplinary issues are managed. Instead of seeing routine incidents as opportunities to apply pedagogically-sound disciplinary practices, they often are redefined as criminal justice issues requiring police intercession and/or arrests.

Consider this one highly publicized example: In 2019, six-year-old Kaia Rolle began hitting and screaming at the assistant principal after being told she couldn’t wear her sunglasses at school. Her family later said that Kaia was suffering side effects related to sleep apnea. The assistant principal requested that a school resource officer address Kaia’s misbehavior. Kaia was zip-tied — handcuffs were too large for her — and taken to a law enforcement vehicle to be transported to a police station. Once there, she was put on a stool for a mug shot because she was too short to be seen by the camera. Kaia was charged with a misdemeanor battery, a criminal offense, although the charges were later dropped. Kaia’s grandmother subsequently shared that Kaia changed after her arrest — she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and severe separation anxiety.

Involvement in the criminal justice system for a child of any age often leads to a host of negative outcomes. Even an arrest that does not result in a conviction is linked to lower academic performance, failure to graduate from high school, stigma and emotional trauma.  

This is particularly troubling given another recent study we conducted, in which we discovered that secondary schools serving higher concentrations of Black students are more likely to have regular contact with law enforcement than other similarly situated schools, even after accounting for school crime, school disorder and school officials’ perceptions of neighborhood crime. 

Our study also suggests another concerning outcome — that schools are failing to disclose data related to student referrals to police as required under federal law. Let me explain why we believe this.

We know that the percentage of schools that have regular contact with law enforcement officers increased substantially from 2009 to 2018. We also know there is a strong connection between a regular law enforcement presence and the rate of reporting students to police. We expected, therefore, that overall police reports would have increased between 2009-2018; however, the rate of school police reports actually decreased over this time period. 

While it is possible that schools are experiencing fewer disciplinary incidents, we — along with other researchers — strongly suspect that schools are instead failing to accurately record and report all student referrals to law enforcement. We found that the number of schools that reported no incidents to law enforcement whatsoever increased from about 39 percent in 2009-10 to about 53 percent in 2017-18.  

Many schools, no doubt, fear the negative attention that accompanies disclosure of incidents involving law enforcement, making them look dangerous. A negative reputation may depress property values, anger the community, draw scrutiny of school officials and cause parents to enroll their children elsewhere.

But the Every Student Succeeds Act requires school districts to publicly report all referrals to law enforcement in exchange for federal funds.

The bottom line is that the U.S. Department of Education needs to hold schools responsible when they fail to report this critical data, which is not difficult or costly to track. The department could easily establish an auditing mechanism to ensure accurate reporting.

Yes, this would benefit researchers like myself by making accurate data available — but more importantly, it would allow parents to make better informed decisions about their children’s educations. And it would hold school officials accountable for over-reliance on the criminal justice system to handle routine disciplinary issues.

Jason P. Nance is a professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida.

Tags criminal justice system education data Education policy Every Student Succeeds Act federal reporting police in schools school data School discipline school resource officers U.S. Department of Education

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