University of New Haven
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several severe incidents of school violence generated national attention and concern (Beger, 2002). Among these events, school shootings and bomb threats were of particular concern, due to their capacity for harm. Such incidents sparked widespread national fear and increased calls for school safety (Myrstol, 2011). As a reaction to these high-profile attacks, school safety and security became a high priority across the United States. Public schools began investing in high-tech security cameras, installing metal detectors, and practicing “lockdown drills” or “intruder drills” in case of an emergency (Beger, 2002; Myrstol, 2011). Other common additions seen in school buildings were the hiring of school security personnel and police officers.
These rapid developments altered the feeling of being in school, shifting from a supporting atmosphere of learning toward a fear-driven environment (Heitzeg, 2014). Instituting such procedures combined the atmosphere of being in school with being in prison, as students began to experience limited freedom of mobility insides and outside of their buildings, with reduced leniency regarding their conduct (Heitzeg, 2009; Zhang, 2019). The 21st century reality was that schools needed to be prepared for the possibility of tragic events and the worst-case scenario.
The resulting public school system was hyper-vigilant to student conduct, leading to the re-examination of school discipline policies. These discipline policies typically are referred to as “zero-tolerance” policies, signifying that schools do not tolerate any level of deviant, violent, or otherwise “criminal” behavior in school (Beger, 2002; Heitzeg, 2009). Such behavior has been broadly categorized as detrimental to facilitating learning in school environments (Myrstol, 2011). School-based punishments for these offenses range from in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension and expulsion. Zero-tolerance policies can mandate strict consequences for misconduct, such as automatic suspension, which may be enforced without further investigation (Pigott, 2018). Formulaic application of these consequences institutes a “one-size-fits-all” response to discipline, despite the fact that student behavior is not a mechanical or standard entity. There is also a noteworthy discrepancy in the proportion of students of color who face these exclusionary punishments (Connery, 2020).
School suspension can significantly impact a child’s life course (Berkenfeld et al. 2016). Mittleman (2018) found suspended students were twice as likely to face adolescent arrest as compared to their non-suspended peers. Furthermore, serious conduct violations often include combined punishments with the legal system. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to face school dropout, drug abuse, and be in the juvenile justice system (Berkenfeld et al., 2016). In general, exclusionary practices that do not attempt to correct behavior show little evidence of improving behavior or future school conduct. Instead, if the student is removed from the school, their behavior is shifted elsewhere. That “somewhere” is the surrounding community, which must then confront the misbehavior (Gerlinger, 2020).
Youth removed from schools also face the developmental impacts of not being in a school setting, including weakened social development and peer bonding (Berkenfeld et al., 2016; Gerlinger, 2020). Recent similar approaches, such as in-school suspension, aim to facilitate learning and academic achievement, with the student’s punishment being removal from the classroom. While these programs are more inclusive than out-of-school suspension, they still exclude the student from peer and social interactions, which normally benefit them developmentally. Moreover, the enforcement of these policies disproportionately impacts minority students, such as Black and Hispanic youth, further impeding their education when they already face additional barriers to academic success (Berkenfeld et al., 2016; Heitzeg, 2009).
By pushing students who misbehave out of school and into the streets, schools directly increase the risk of youth being arrested and incarcerated (Berkenfeld et al., 2016; Heitzeg, 2009; Pigott et al., 2018). The term “school-to-prison pipeline” emerged from a distinct pattern of students being pushed out of schools, through having in-school infractions criminalized that previously would have been kept within the school system (Heitzeg, 2009; McKenna, 2018). This pattern is particularly dangerous for students who have an incidence of childhood suspension from school, as they are three times more likely to experience additional exclusionary discipline as they get older (Mittleman, 2018). Previous literature also indicates that zero-tolerance policies propel students into the juvenile justice system by making juvenile arrests more likely (Berkenfeld et al., 2016; Mittleman, 2018). Heitzeg (2009) noted that “increased reliance on zero tolerance policies … play an immediate and integral role in feeding the school to prison pipeline” (Heitzeg, 2009, p. 8). Overall, zero-tolerance punishments appear to increase the rate at which students are removed from the education system permanently, by forcing them to drop out, which frequently results in delinquency and “feeding” the pipeline (Heitzeg, 2014).
Recent decades also included a transition of school discipline enforcers from school administrators to local law enforcement. This transition occurred more often in larger inner-city school districts like New York City and Boston public schools (Beger, 2002). In shifting this responsibility, minor offenses, such as swearing, insubordination, and disorderly conduct, became possible criminal misdemeanors (Zhang, 2019). Previously, these incidents were handled through school sanctions, such as detention or suspension. Now, children could be referred to juvenile court for acting out in school (Pigott et al., 2018). This change may be influenced by the increased presence of police officers in schools, which may increase opportunities for juvenile court referrals. It is also possible, however, that the placement of police in schools provides a new avenue for community policing to occur.
Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is an initiative to connect officers with the local community, including schools, and has received over $14 billion in federal funding (Beger, 2002; Connery, 2020; Hudson et al., 2019). Empirical support for community policing has grown over recent decades, suggesting its potential for changing the relationship between the police and the public they serve. If youth are provided the opportunity to have positive interactions with police before negative encounters occur, then lasting trust can be built between them (Dadio, 2020). This contrasts with zero-tolerance school policies, which appear to reduce opportunities for positive interactions and trust-building between youth and authority figures.
School Resource Officers
The most popular security addition to schools from the mid-1990s until present day has been School Resource Officers (SROs) (Berger, 2002; Connery, 2020; Heitzeg, 2009, 2014; Mittleman, 2018; Theriot, 2009; Zhang, 2019). School resource officers generally are sworn police officers employed by local law enforcement and assigned to one or more schools in a district (Hudson et al., 2019). Due to the unique nature of officers being stationed in schools, many communities developed formal SRO programs. These programs continue to be “the fastest growing area of law enforcement,” (Theriot, 2009, p. 281) and over $1 billion has been invested from the federal government since the late 1990s to increase police presence in schools (Connery, 2020; Theriot, 2009). About 80% of large police jurisdictions had permanent SRO programs by the mid-2000s (Myrstol, 2011). By 2018, 58% of all schools in the United States had at least one police officer in the building (Connery, 2020).
Despite the vast amount of funding given to such positions, the minimal federal policy guiding SRO positions results in high levels of variation between districts (Connery, 2020). Although their initial placement in schools was a reaction and response to high-profile school shootings, school security is far from their only responsibility (Connery, 2020; Heitzeg, 2014). Specifically, there is significant variation on a local level as to the direct involvement of SROs in student discipline (Heitzeg, 2009; Torre et al., 2021). School-based policing programs may have officers patrolling the building, investigating criminal incidents, and handling student misconduct (Connery, 2020; McKenna, 2018; Torre et al., 2021). There are no national regulations on SRO programs or federal oversight of their implementation of community policing initiatives (Connery, 2020).
Some schools with an SRO are required to have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that clearly outlines the expected roles and duties of their SRO position; however, it is not required for MOUs to be publicly accessible. Connecticut, for example, is one of just four states that require an MOU with local law enforcement (Connery, 2020). Since most SRO programs are administered through the town’s local police department, MOUs function as an agreement between the police department and the school department regarding the function and responsibilities of the SRO. MOUs also can be used to establish boundaries for what the SRO is and is not allowed to do as part of their position. This is where some towns in Connecticut have distinctly separated their SROs from non-criminal/legal matters, such as student infractions and discipline (Connery, 2020). Recently, however, Senator Murphy introduced the “Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act,” which aims to prohibit the use of federal funds for maintaining police presence in schools throughout the state (Murphy, n.d.). This bill would redirect the schools towards hiring more counselors, social workers, and support personnel, instead of maintaining SRO programs.
Historically, the placement of SROs in schools was to fulfill the same functions of a police officer, while working in a school environment (McKenna, 2018). Connecticut started to hire SROs in the late 1990s, in an effort to increase punitive responses to youth public safety concerns (Hudson et al., 2019; Murphy, n.d.). In general, police officers are trained to make arrests in order to contain and end conflicts or to apprehend law violators. If SROs are not provided school-specific training on de-escalation methods, then it seems logical they will make arrests in school settings (Zhang, 2019). Theriot (2009) explained that an increased number of referrals to the juvenile justice system from school-based incidents can be connected to the increased presence of police officers in schools. Often these criminalized incidents do not pose threats to overall school safety, but they may include isolated disagreements between students that result in assault charges (Pigott et al., 2018; Theriot, 2009). The U.S. Department of Education has recognized these trends and started collecting data on school arrests in 2013 (Connery, 2020). However, the quantitative arrest data fails to capture the proportion of the arrests made by SROs versus patrol officers who were called to schools. Additionally, such national data does not consider other functions of SROs in schools, apart from discipline and security.
The role of SROs also transformed with the growing popularity of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in schools (McKenna, 2018). DARE positioned SROs to take on an educator role for students and opened the door for officers to teach students about criminal justice topics. DARE built on the Department of Justice COPS program that prompted SROs to act as counselors and mentors for students (McKenna, 2018). This role is not new for SROs, as they often participate in practices of the school system outside of their law enforcement position. However, McKenna (2018) also asserted that if SROs are asked to fulfill duties outside of traditional law enforcement, “role conflict” can manifest through this disjunction.
Theriot (2009) suggested that SROs’ reactions to student misconduct can change to fill a role other than that of a police officer. This role change lacks empirical examination, however, to understand the multidimensional position of SROs. McKenna (2018) argued that SROs’ expectations of their role impact how they respond to incidents as either an officer or a counselor/resource, finding that the majority of SROs sampled identify their role to be a law enforcement position. Exploring this disjuncture between identifying as law enforcement while being assigned different duties and expectations is required to understand the nature and presence of SROs in schools.
Media and Public Perception
Research in this area suggests that portrayals of violence in the media contribute to zero tolerance policy development (Heitzeg, 2014). Media can shape public perceptions of crime, and increased media coverage of violence in the late 1990s impacted the general public’s attitudes (Heitzeg, 2014). Violent youth crime is significantly over-represented in the media, especially in depicting Black and Latino offenders (Dadio, 2020). Heitzeg (2014) also explained that violent crime coverage disproportionately focuses on youth and juvenile crime relative to realistic crime rates. The consequence of this misrepresentation is a distorted public perception that hyper-fixates on the threat of youth violence. The fear instilled in viewers is played on by lawmakers who propose “get tough on crime” campaigns. This is not to say that the policies responding to highly publicized school shootings were out of proportion, but rather they increased the public awareness that such serious threats exist.
To further illustrate the importance of media and public influence, in Connecticut, the New Haven Board of Education and New Haven Public Schools formed a joint School Security Task Force centering on the continuation of the city’s SRO program in the wake of the George Floyd case (Torre et al., 2021). This committee was formed as a reaction to the public outcry for change regarding systemic issues in policing. They expressed specific concerns that the SRO program perpetuated injustice against minority communities and notably against Black students. The committee reviewed national and local policy; school arrest data for the district; surveys from students, teachers, and parents; and responses from a public forum (Torre et al., 2021). While it ultimately made the recommendation to not end the SRO program and instead provide “major transformations,” the recommendations they provided are noteworthy (Torre et al., 2021).
Arrest data from New Haven schools showed that most arrests were for assault/battery, fighting, and drug possession (in that order) (Torre et al., 2021). Furthermore, survey results indicated that 60.2% of students and 66.7% of parents and staff felt that SROs were necessary to have in a school (Torre et al., 2021). Despite those numbers, over two-thirds of both groups responded that they had never been in a situation in which an SRO was needed. Additional data indicated that 98% of SRO calls were resolved without an arrest being made (Torre et al., 2021). This statistic suggests meaningful success in the use of diversionary measures outside of the criminal justice system. The report also noted that removing SROs from schools would result in reduced opportunities for student/police relationships, which could harm the de-escalation ability of officers if there was limited understanding or rapport present before a conflict (Torre et al., 2021). Another major finding of the study revealed a “complete absence of clear and concise communication and education regarding the mission, vision, and role of an SRO” (Torre et al., 6, 2021). This finding suggests a disconnect between the perceived and actual roles of SROs.
The present study bridges a gap in the existing literature, identified by Hudson et al. (2019) and Connery (2020), that there currently is no meaningful way to assess the acting role of SROs in schools. Some schools in Connecticut conduct climate surveys, where students provide feedback on various school experiences; however, most do not ask about interactions with SROs (Hudson et al., 2019). The recent examination by New Haven Public Schools began to reflect on the actual role of SROs, but there is still little empirical exploration in this area. Additionally, little research has explored the experiences and perspectives of SROs regarding their roles in schools. This appears to be a valuable area to investigate, as perceptions about their role directly influence their actions in the field. Interviewing SROs about their perceived role and how they operate in their schools can provide better understanding regarding the influential position they fill. Exploring the roles of SROs from open-ended inquiry also provides additional insight from a perspective that previous research has failed to capture.
The current research included semi-structured qualitative interviews with five current school resource officers (SROs) working in Connecticut public schools. This method was chosen because access to this population is limited, as not every school in Connecticut has an SRO, and there was no comprehensive list available for the schools that utilize one. A semi-structured interview format allowed for the officers to explain their roles and responsibilities in detail. This approach offered a complete understanding of the position and left room for distinguishing between unique school districts that may utilize these positions differently. Additionally, officers could elaborate on questions they felt strongly about while providing concise answers to questions that were less relevant to their experience. This format allowed for the efficient use of time and meaningful commentary from the participants.
The participants were all current SROs and recruited via email inquiry. The process of gaining access to this population was lengthy and contributed to the low number of participants. First, a list of school districts in Connecticut was compiled, then school principal email addresses were identified, and each was sent an initial inquiry. The initial inquiry advertised the study and asked principals if they had an SRO at their school who would like to participate (see Appendix A). From the original list of 30 contacts, the response rate was low, despite reminder emails that were sent out three weeks after the initial inquiry. One principal indicated they did not have an SRO, one indicated that they had just hired a new SRO this academic year and did not want him to participate, two schools declined participation, and the majority of schools never responded. From the school principals who replied, some directly connected with the SRO via email, and others said they would mention it to their SRO and have them reach out if they were interested.
From these recruitment efforts, five SROs eventually were interviewed. The only inclusion criteria were for the participants to be over 18 and a current SRO regularly placed in a school. No incentives for participation were used for this study. Of the five participants, all five were male, four were placed primarily in high schools, and four were responsible for more than one school. Within the five districts the participants worked, one was rural, one was rural/suburban mix, and three were densely populated urban/suburban mix. The geographic distribution of the towns included the central, western, and southern parts of the state. Additional demographic information, such as age and race, was not collected from this sample.
Data Collection Process
The interview introduction and interview questions are presented in Appendix B and Appendix C. The interview questions were developed based on the existing literature in the field regarding the intended roles of SROs in schools. The officers were asked to provide an overall reflection on their role as an SRO. They were asked to describe the components and duties of their position, along with their thoughts and attitudes about being an SRO. The interview questions were written to generate a better understanding of their role in detail. The first four questions were to assess the initial intentions of their placement in schools. This was done mainly to see if the participants were initially interested in being an SRO and working with children, or if they simply were assigned to be there. The next few questions sought to examine the typical daily functions in the school, with a specific focus on their associations with students. Follow-up questions varied slightly for each participant, primarily for clarification or expansion on something they mentioned in their response. The final questions assessed their familiarity with the controversy surrounding SROs in schools. These questions were omitted if the officer discussed this topic (unprompted) in their earlier responses, in which case the researcher would ask similar follow-up questions at that point in the interview. These questions probed the SRO perspective or awareness about the possible issues, public perceptions, any negative impact of their role, and their feelings toward these topics.
For this study, a qualitative approach was chosen to assess the diverse nature of occupational experiences. Each participant had varying involvements in their schools that were distinct in some ways from the other participants. The semi-structured approach permitted guided discussion with unique answers from each participant. Additionally, the audio of the interviews was recorded to allow the conversation to flow naturally, without any interruption due to notetaking by the researcher. The advantage of this format is that the recordings could be played back to analyze each participant’s exact responses, without reliance on interpretations of notes or memory recall of the interviewer.
Over email correspondence, interested participants scheduled interview times and were informed about the study. Through this communication, the participants were provided and returned a signed copy of the informed consent form. Lastly, a Zoom invitation was sent to the participant for the day and time of the interview. Upon joining the Zoom session, participants were greeted with the Interview Script presented in Appendix B. Next, they were asked if they had any questions about the consent form, and they were reminded that the audio of the session was recorded. The interview then began and lasted anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on the length of participant responses. After the final answer was given, the researcher indicated that the interview was over and that the recording would cease. Participants then were asked if they had any remaining questions or concerns. Finally, they were thanked for their participation, and the Zoom meeting ended. The protocol for the data collection process was approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board before the commencement of data collection.
Data Analysis Process
Before analysis, the data existed as audio files that were recorded from each interview. Online software from Otter.ai was used to transform the audio files into written transcripts, which were password-protected. This process was relatively simple, as the software has a feature where existing files can be uploaded and transcribed automatically. The resulting transcripts were checked for accuracy and hand-edited where necessary.
Participant confidentiality was a major concern with this study. Confidentiality efforts were made in the consent form, and participants were given a verbal reminder before the recording not to mention their name, their school’s name, their town’s name, or the names of any other people. Despite these efforts, multiple participants repeatedly said the names of their town, the school’s name, and the names of another person when answering the research questions. During one interview, an announcement was made over an intercom system in the building, stating a student’s name. The SRO muted his audio as quickly as possible. Upon transcribing the audio files and reviewing them for accuracy, any mentioned names or identifiers were deleted and replaced with asterisks in the written transcript. All mentioned names and towns were excluded from this report to maintain participant confidentiality.
Thematic analysis was chosen for this study. The identification of these themes was made by reviewing and coding frequently-mentioned concepts across multiple respondents.
Positionality and Ethical Issues
Data collection was difficult due to the researcher being an outsider to this population. Studying the role of law enforcement in schools, while never having been a police officer, provided the opportunity for personal assumptions to impact the framework and implementation of the study. As a female, young adult, and non-member of law enforcement, the researcher only ever experienced SROs from a student’s perspective and from consuming existing literature. This positionality impacted the data collection primarily in the creation of the research questions. Existing research, previous studies, and critical thinking were relied upon heavily to formulate the questions that the SROs were asked. There is a possibility that these questions did not fully capture the role of SROs; however, the participants were prompted to add any additional details or comments they felt necessary.
Participant perceptions of the researcher also could have impacted this study, as respondents may have tailored their replies to a simplified level or painted their image in a more positive light than was accurate. However, this was considered by the researcher, as the officers were encouraged to be honest. Some of them did recognize the negative aspects of their position. Overall, the participants expressed a mixed understanding of the purpose of the research study. One commented on how he was “glad to help with this project,” while seeming to underestimate the scope of the analysis. Another participant perhaps overestimated the extent of this research by asking “where will this be published?” This varied level of understanding may have impacted replies, based on how impactful they believed the present study to be.
In general, the content discussed in the interviews was not overly sensitive. However, the questions “What do you think the public perception of your position is in your area?” and “Are you aware of any criticisms about SROs?” were moderately sensitive, as they asked the participant to reflect on potentially negative experiences or encounters. As a response to this question, one participant explained that upon starting his position, he received a rude email from a new colleague, stating that he did not belong in the school and that he was there to intimidate the students. Another participant discussed how this past school year had been challenging to confront the anti-police rhetoric at the forefront of national protests. He expressed that he was hurt by people thinking that police are robots, and he wanted to humanize law enforcement to students by serving as a positive mentor for them. Lastly, participants expressed limited-to-moderate knowledge of the controversy about SROs. Some noted that they were aware of mixed feedback about their placement in schools, and others noted that they were aware of the potential state-wide shift away from SRO programs.
Analysis and Findings
This study examined the function of SROs from first-hand accounts. Officers provided personal insight and reflection on their position in answering the research questions. Distinct themes were quite apparent across the interviews. Each interview was reviewed for initial indicators of overlapping themes that were then selected for further examination. Four distinct themes emerged: a) desire to serve as a role model; b) rapport and relationship-building with students; c) extracurricular engagement outside of law enforcement duties; and d) separation from discipline and misconduct. The first section of questions assessed the undertaking of their role as SROs. Responses from this category highlighted officers’ goals to be positive role models and help students be successful. The second theme emerged as a mechanism by which the participants aim to accomplish this goal. All participants expressed a desire to build a positive rapport with students and that they felt it a crucial element of their placement in schools. The third theme outlined another avenue to accomplish positive engagement, which was extracurricular involvement. This category of behaviors encompassed any actions outside of law enforcement or community policing that were tied to being placed in a school setting. Lastly, the most noteworthy distinct theme found from the data was the separation of SROs from participation in student discipline. This was the most clear-cut finding, as the participants had distinct and straightforward replies that this was not a component of their role.
Serving as a Role Model and Mentor
One goal of the SROs was to serve as a positive example of a police officer and to be a trustworthy adult in the building for students to access, with the belief that SROs can fulfill the position of mentor and role model for children through their placement in schools. One officer explained his objective for being an SRO was to produce a positive view of law enforcement in young people:
I think it’s really important to show the police in a positive light to children when they’re younger. So that way, they don’t like grow up hating police officers. And so, they have an understanding of what the police do and that we ultimately are there to help people, even though not everyone believes that.
Throughout this officer’s response, he also explained that his position is an extension of community policing. In his view, working with children is an effective way to promote a positive outlook of police, as young people are more impressionable and are less likely to already hold negative views of law enforcement.
Another commonality in this theme was how several of the officers specifically sought the placement as an SRO, and they had to apply, interview, and train for it. The participants who noted this explained that they had non-police experiences earlier in life while working with kids or were parents themselves and wanted to connect youth and law enforcement. One officer reflected on his transition to becoming an SRO in this way:
It’s a competitive process, you go against some of your peers who also want it and, you know, just like any other job in law enforcement, you go for your oral board interview, and I think your intentions have to be right, you really have to want to do this.
This perspective also displays how in some communities, the SRO position is sought after, and the officers who fill these roles are not placed at random but rather are carefully selected individuals who are interested in helping youth. Officer perspectives going into such an influential position are important, because they correlate with attitudes and feelings towards the role, as the officer touched on in his response.
Some officers noted that they were assigned specific students to work with and mentor as part of their position. One officer explained that he met with students informally to form these bonds:
The school had identified kids that they thought could benefit from a relationship, you know, a positive relationship. So they identified those kids and put them on a caseload, almost where I would see them and meet with them, you know, a couple times a week. Whether it’s going out and shooting hoops, or having lunch together, throwing a football around.
This officer expressed that he felt connected to these students, and they did not have a negative reason for needing to meet with him. Another officer similarly explained that he served as another adult in the building whom students could trust if they needed someone to talk to. Comments like this appeared in four out of five of the interviews, suggesting that this is a common approach and expectation for SROs to be an additional resource for students.
Having SROs serve as mentors for students was not part of the initial reason to create the position but rather arose as a distinct commonality for the interviewed officers. Since the participants strongly associated themselves with the mentor role, they elaborated on different actions and practices they used to make that role a reality for students. The SROs engaged in several common behaviors such as having lunch with students, making small talk, and walking the halls, with the hope of students viewing them as mentors and positive examples of police officers.
Relationship-Building with Students
One way the SROs explained their engagement with students was by making efforts to regularly socialize with them. This theme represents virtually all behaviors the officers engaged in, with the intent to form social bonds and relationships with the student body in their schools. Most participants noted common behaviors as walking the halls between classes, joining students for lunch, and making small talk with them when opportunities were there. One officer who was very new to the position explained that he did this as a first step to get acquainted with some students:
Whenever there’s kids out on the picnic tables, having their lunch or in a study hall, I’ll make it a point to stop for 10 minutes and just chitchat and see what they’re up to. And, you know, so far I’ve established a few regular relationships where I have a first name basis with some students.
This response was from a participant who had only been an SRO for a month at the time and signifies a clear effort to create and maintain connections with students. All of the SROs interviewed engaged in similar behavior by making small talk, walking the halls, and learning students’ names. Relatedly, Berkenfeld et al. (2016) suggest that building personal relationships with students can decrease acting out in school and can serve as a prevention tool for student misconduct.
Another commonality in this area is that SROs who stay with students across multiple levels often continue their relationships while students grow up. For example, 80% of the SROs interviewed were responsible for more than one school. In those cases, the schools were of multiple age levels, such as elementary, middle, and high schools. Consequently, unless children move away or transfer, the students in the middle school eventually move to the high school. It is then possible for a student to have the same SRO throughout their K-12 experience. While it is less likely that a student would be aware of their SRO in elementary school, this can be impactful for a struggling student who may benefit from a consistent adult in their life. One officer who had previously worked at his town’s middle school and recently moved to the high school explained this experience in detail:
It’s been really interesting, you know, to see them as 13-year-olds, some of them are 16 now driving cars, and where I was dealing with them as eighth graders, now I’m helping them out if they get like into fender benders around the parking lot. You know it’s kind of crazy, you’re with a number of kids for a long enough time, and your intentions are good, and you’re making strong connections with them.
This reflection signifies how the SRO viewed his role as important and the relationships he forms with students to be lasting and meaningful. His experience suggests a positive rapport with the students in his district that is valuable and provides them with someone who will be there for them as a resource.
According to Berkenfeld et al. (2016), transition periods for students are large sources of misbehavior and frequently correspond to increases in acting out. They go on to note that ninth graders are the most likely to act out as they transition to a high school environment, exhibiting more school arrest rates and expulsions than any other grade (Berkenfeld et al., 2016). In the current study, the SRO staying with his students from middle to high school could be beneficial in continuing a relationship with an adult and providing a familiar face during this transition. By extension, it is feasible that students connected to the SRO would experience fewer behavioral issues in ninth grade.
Another aspect of relationship-building involves maintaining the positionality of being a police officer. One of the interview questions asked participants if they felt students viewed them more as a member of law enforcement or as school authority. The answers were mixed, and some said that it depends on the context of their interactions. One officer explained:
I think it differs based on context. … I feel like they see me as not the normal police officer, … there are going to be students that are more comfortable around me than like one of my co-workers outside of school, right, because they know me.
This reflection characterizes how SROs are still police officers, their unique position in schools permits another level of connection with the students. This can be considered an extension of community policing, where the aim is for officers to have a relationship with the community they serve so that when issues arise, rapport can be mutually beneficial in resolving conflict (Dadio, 2020). Several officers encompassed this notion in their responses with similar statements. One officer explained that he could be joking around or chatting with a student, but then something could happen that causes him to take on the police part of his role with the same student. This role change can be complicated for SROs to encounter and manage. As explained by McKenna (2018), role conflict can occur in scenarios where the riendly and mentoring SRO must suddenly engage in law enforcement responsibilities, despite being in a relationship that already exists.
As a result of being in schools, SROs perform duties beyond the scope of typical police officers. These functions include activities related to academics, clubs, sports, community programs, and leisure. Officers frequently get involved with these programs to establish themselves as a mentor, a resource, or a trusted adult. Several participants noted that they were responsible for teaching classes or running programs at their school. Such lessons included drug and alcohol education, internet and social media safety, and an academic class called “Law and Order.” Officers generally explained that these programs were a way to share their knowledge with the community.
One officer discussed how his town, along with most, has transitioned away from providing the DARE program. They have replaced it with a more specific and relevant program for their community, which:
…boiled down to specifically what the issues are we’re seeing on a patrol level in our town. That program was customized to things that we’re seeing. The things we’re dealing with now are the cyberbullying issues and social media issues that really just have become the most prevalent juvenile issue.
The purpose of such a program is not only to teach children and families about these key topics but to add to the view that SROs are a positive and valuable resource for their students. If the officers are reliable for facilitating these programs, then there is harm done by removing them from schools, as the removal of the programs they facilitate would likely follow. In conjunction with Torre et al. (2021), the abrupt removal of SROs could negatively impact the school communities that they have long-term relationships with.
To expand on this notion, SROs frequently engage in non-academic programming that reinforces their mentor relationship with students. One participant explained that it is routine in their school for each SRO to coach a sport. He said that he coached baseball and his partner SRO in the district coached soccer. These additional roles in extracurriculars enhance student connection to law enforcement subtlety by allowing them to bond with the officers outside of their police officer roles:
You’re only limited by your own creativity as an SRO, if you want to get involved in [a] sort of program or do a mentorship group or law enforcement class, whatever you want. It’s up to you to create it.
This perspective from a long-serving SRO showcases how flexible the outreach component of their role can be. Some participants indicated greater involvement with extra-curricular programming than others; however, all of them ran community policing programming in conjunction with their SRO role. In their view, not only does this extend the documented benefits of community policing into the school systems, but it also connects students to members of their community and forms positive adult relationships. The flexibility of SRO programming also allows the content of their lessons to adjust to modern needs. As the officer in the previous example noted, the current issues adolescents face are related to the internet and social media. Ten years ago, programs to combat cyberbullying did not exist, as social media was just coming out. The position of SRO uniquely combines a safety and security component with school and student issues. Additionally, flexibility allows officers to recognize a particular need in their school or community and develop a program to meet that need.
SROs do not stop their involvement with the police department once they were assigned to schools. They undertake community programs and initiatives as patrol officers, such as summer programs, holiday drives, and local fundraisers. One SRO explained that he likes having a connection to students outside of school activities while he is with other police officers because it shows that as an SRO, he is not unlike other officers in the department. Another participant described a summer camp that his department ran to engage children with police in a positive light:
We also hold our camp in the summer called the Junior Police Academy, well we held pre-COVID, and we did it in 2016-2019. We had a summer camp for basically all middle school kids to let them know what was a lot of police functions as well as having fun to take them to a ball game or to a lake for swimming.
A program like this associates fun activities with law enforcement and can impact a youth’s view of the police. While this can enhance the existing relationship students have with their SRO, programs such as this could function without one of the officers being an SRO. If such programming already exists with community policing efforts, the need for an additional SRO may be unclear. These programs are a major shift away from the initial intention of the SRO position, which was enhancing safety in schools following major acts of violence.
Separation from Discipline
This theme centered on the connection or role the SRO fulfills related to student conduct, discipline, or school sanctions and was the most distinct and clear in this analysis. All participants articulated a clear separation of their position as an SRO from dealing with matters of student conduct. The consensus was that there is a clear line between acting out in school and a criminal offense. Most officers explained that they do not involve themselves in enforcing school rules or policies. For most participants, this was their shortest response as the answer was a simple “no we are not involved.” One officer provided additional insight on this question by replying:
It’s very important the SROs don’t get involved in that. It’s kind of a sticky slope if you have the SRO enforcing school rules.
He later provided an example of how this policy is limiting but functional. He explained that his school currently has a mask mandate for students, but that if he passes a student in the halls with their mask below their nose or mouth, he refrains from commenting or asking them to adjust it. He articulated that if they say no to his request, he cannot enforce this school rule as a police officer, and in his words, this is a “sticky slope” bridging the two. His use of this term was alluding to the potential school-to-prison pipeline, which he went on to discuss in a later question. His mention of this issue revealed his awareness that one thing can lead to another regarding consequences for behavioral actions. So, in this example, if an SRO were to enforce school rules unrelated to unlawful behavior, he believed he would cross a line by using his authority as a law enforcement officer outside of its intended purpose.
Several officers explained a different way in which their school involves them in discipline, without their being a part of the student interaction. This was identified as a consulting or advising role of the SRO. Three out of five of the participants mentioned this concept in their response. In this scenario, school personnel (such as teachers or principals) would handle a case of student misconduct and then inform the SRO about the student’s behavior or the incident. This way of keeping SROs in the loop can sometimes also be an effort to seek their advice about the situation. One office described his experience with this process in this way:
A lot of times the school administration just deals with it, but … a lot of times they’ll ask me advice, like “hey this is a situation I got, what do you think about them?” and I kind of just give them my two cents.
This reflection depicts how SROs have a working relationship with school personnel as a consultant, without being actual enforcers of school conduct policies. Another officer explained that he would be informed when a student he had a mentoring relationship with would get into trouble and could use someone to talk to about it. This position and role of the SRO, to be informed about student incidents but not act as the enforcer of school policies, was an important distinction made by all participants. The participants’ replies were in contrast with existing literature, which suggested a relationship between the presence of SROs in schools and increased referrals to the juvenile justice system.
Participants did acknowledge that there is a time and place where they would be required to step in as a police officer in a student situation. The SROs explained that there is a line crossed when a serious act of violence occurs or a threat of serious injury or danger to life is present. In these cases, the SROs noted that they still would work with the school administration but that the criminal offense would be recognized. Several officers also discussed another option becoming popular in Connecticut; Juvenile Review Boards (JRBs).
JRB’s are one promising alternative to charging youth in juvenile court, thereby avoiding the label of adjudicated delinquent, which can affect young people for the rest of their lives. JRBs are panels commonly comprised of community members, law enforcement, school personnel, and public representatives, who review juvenile offenses and provide alternative sentencing options rather than charging them officially. This permits youthful offenders to have a second chance, learn from their wrongdoing, and avoid the permanent effects of having a criminal record. Two of the SROs interviewed mentioned that they served on their town’s JRB, and another mentioned that he had referred students to the JRB instead of the juvenile justice system. One officer reflected on his position on the JRB in this way:
We hear different cases, and then decide on what the consequences are going to be. So, it could be like community service for the student, or it could be writing an essay. And once the student does that, then what they got arrested for they actually get off their record.
Through his response, he explained that this board serves as a diversionary program to prevent one misstep from ruining an adolescent’s future. The use of JRBs as a diversionary tool can assist in limiting the number of referrals made from the school to the juvenile justice system. It is one option that allows SROs to help students get back on track while still recognizing the nature and extent of their offense.
Overall, the interview data provided a clear distinction in separating SROs from most cases of student misconduct. This is a variation from the literature, suggesting that further exploration of SROs’ roles and responsibilities is needed. In general, Connecticut may be different from other places in the country regarding matters of youth justice and reformative approaches to delinquency. Several officers noted their awareness of this positionality, commenting that they only can speak based on their own experience and how their district operates. Some officers also explained that they are glad it is not their job to arrest kids, and they were satisfied having been allowed to share their perspectives and experiences through this study.
An interview question asked participants what they thought the general public’s view or the community’s view of their position was. One officer articulated his view by stating:
I think the public realizes the value of having a school resource officer. That it’s good to have me here, and I’m not just arresting kids, and it’s not just the school to prison pipeline like you might see on the news.
This unprompted insight regarding the school-to-prison pipeline theory depicts how SROs can be cognizant of their ability to do both good and cause harm in their role. This officer expressed an awareness that society may have certain expectations of SROs, and that it is his responsibility to remedy this misunderstanding. This evident pushback against the rhetoric in the field suggests the need for additional investigation in this area. A better understanding of this disjuncture between research and personal experiences may foster a better future for community relations with law enforcement and allow steps to be taken in a positive direction from both sides.
Discussion and Conclusions
The present study sought to explore the role of SROs from a first-hand perspective to compare their accounts to the existing literature in the field. Of specific focus for this examination were their interactions with students, their role in student discipline, and any referrals to the criminal justice system. The main areas of analysis were how SROs served as role models and mentors, focused on building relationships with students, engaged in extracurricular tasks outside of law enforcement, and were distinctly separated from student discipline. Through their responses to the interview questions, participants described behaviors, duties, and interactions that fell into these four themes. Collectively, the qualitative data collected through the interviews describe the role these school resource officers fill in their schools in Connecticut. Overall, these officers had a positive and meaningful outlook on their function as a member of law enforcement in a school setting. Their perspectives also represent a significant contrast to the existing literature in the field and the potential future directions of SRO programs in Connecticut (Connery, 2020; Murphy, n.d.; Torre et al., 2021).
Research findings nationwide and in Connecticut suggest that the presence of SROs in schools negatively impacts the learning environment and the execution of student discipline (Connery, 2020; Torre et al., 2021). Studies such as Connery (2020) cite higher arrest rates for schools that have SROs, with an increased proportion of those arrests being students of color (Berkenfeld et al., 2016; Nicholson-Crotty et al., 2009). Connecticut Senators have introduced a formal bill to slowly decrease the presence of SROs, by limiting how they are funded and redirecting federal and government funding to hiring school counselors, social workers, and support personnel instead (Murphy, n.d.). The stark contrast between the personal experiences of SROs in this study and the previous research and policy implications suggests a major disconnect between the views of the SROs and current directions for policy and practice. Participants in this study overwhelmingly expressed their willingness to work with school personnel and other stakeholders, and they believed that their role in schools had a strong purpose and beneficial effect.
The studied SROs expressed that an important component of their position is creating a positive view and relationship with law enforcement for students from a young age. Dadio (2020) explains that youth connections to law enforcement are important in developing their view of police for later in life. She articulates those efforts of community policing are especially impactful for young people as a source of positive association to authority (Dadio, 2020). SROs did not originate as an extension of community policing, but they have grown into that role over time, as the federal government has funded much of their growth (Myrstol, 2011). SROs generally seek to provide the combined function of being in school as a student resource while serving a security role in case a serious threat arises. Still, little research has been conducted comparing the perceptions of SRO programs among the public, parents, students, and officers.
The bill introduced by Senator Murphy, entitled “The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act,” is a major policy step regarding SRO programs (Murphy, n.d.). This act prohibits the use of federal funds for maintaining the presence of police in schools. This act aims to have schools use reallocated funding to hire more counselors, social workers, and support personnel for school buildings. This legislation signifies a shift from the previous two decades, which exhibited growth of and dedication to creating a police presence in schools (Connery, 2020).
This Connecticut bill is supported at least partially by the findings of Torre et al. (2021). The bill suggests that SRO programs will be phased out slowly, to not disrupt the current relationships students may have with SROs, but to eventually replace them with other support personnel (citation needed). The findings of the current study also are somewhat congruent with these policy directions, as the participants indicated a strong rapport and bond with students in their schools. Additionally, the interviewed SROs indicated that student discipline was not within their responsibilities, despite national data in the field suggesting otherwise. Therefore, in transitioning away from SRO programs, policymakers and school administrators should recognize what potentially can be lost through eliminating these positions, and ensure that adequate funding and personnel are provided to school districts that will need to replace SROs.
The limitations of this study are important to recognize. Primarily, the small sample size severely limits the generalizability of the findings. Having five participants was not the original intention of this study. Initially, the objective was for a larger sample size of 10-15 SROs, from a more diverse set of school districts in Connecticut. Many factors led to the small sample size; however, the primary one was access to the target population. There is no comprehensive list of the towns or school districts that utilize SROs or have programs involving them. A result of this limitation is that permission for participation had to be filtered through the school’s principal. In using this sampling process, some principals did not want their SROs to participate, and many simply chose not to respond to the inquiry. Additionally, there was a participant who had to remove himself from the study, after being instructed to do so by his superiors. This adverse community response indicated a reluctance of this population to engage in the research, suggesting that the findings generated in this study may not be representative of the population of SROs in Connecticut and beyond.
This research only collected data from five available SROs from schools in Connecticut. Based on five interviews, the findings concerning the role and functions of SROs are not generalizable to the entire state or country, as the perspectives of these officers may be different from the larger population of SROs. Arguably, the results of these interviews could have been different had the officers been from other school districts in Connecticut or regions in the United States. One officer commented that the existing research findings referred to in the final interview question could not have been based on SROs in New England and that these findings probably originated in regions down South and in more rural areas, where “they get away with things like that.” In this comment, he was implying that in other states or regions, there might be less oversight or accountability for the direct actions of SROs. This was an interesting thought and prompts the need for a more expansive study in the future. A larger study that encompasses participants from different states could produce different findings.
In addition to the above limitations, two of the five SROs in this study started placement as an SRO within the past two months of being interviewed. Before this assignment, these individuals worked as patrol officers, which is a vastly different type of policing activity and position to hold in the community. Limited SRO experience may decrease the validity of their responses, as their insight is limited to the short scope of time and experiences gained thus far. More specifically, one participant had to answer several questions about what he was planning to do as an SRO, or what he hoped to accomplish, rather than what he had done. This limitation further decreases the representativeness of the sample and the generalizability of the findings.
This study also did not account for student perspectives in studying SROs. Students may not perceive SROs in their school as positively as the officers believe to be the case. While the officers expressed that they are there for the students and to be a trusted resource, the students may feel differently. Access to studying students is more difficult, as they are minors and a protected population, but this is another area worth exploring. Understanding SROs from both perspectives would assess if there is symmetry in their experiences. If a disconnect is present, then SROs may not impact students in the positive way that they think they do.
Due to the interpersonal and exploratory nature of this study, the interview questions did not pose a direct challenge to the participants regarding negative community perspectives or existing research findings of SRO roles and effectiveness. The final interview question, regarding existing research findings of increased referrals of students to the juvenile justice system at schools utilizing SROs, was met with mixed feedback. Most participants expressed denial or deflection of that question, saying it was not their experience and the existing findings did not seem accurate. No direct questions asked if they or their schools engaged in exclusionary discipline; however, some officers touched on this in their other responses. This limitation could be avoided with a less personal nature of data collection. Had the questions been asked in a survey or as free-response written questions, the participants may have felt less confronted or challenged by the questions. There is a significant consideration to be noted that not every person is comfortable being fully honest on camera while being recorded and in front of another person. These factors potentially led participants to be more positive regarding the reality of their position.
This study indicates a need for future exploration regarding the perspectives of SROs, with larger sample sizes and in various locations. The findings of this study suggest a significant disconnect between the results of academic research in this area and the perceptions of individuals filling SRO positions. This disjuncture should be explored further, particularly in light of the criticism SROs often face in the media, among policymakers, and the general public. As contemporary anti-police rhetoric often involves interactions with youth, and SROs may be their only personal connection to a member of law enforcement, the importance of examining this topic area from different perspectives remains.
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Initial Inquiry Email
Hello Principal (Name),
My name is Rebecca McDermott, and I am an undergraduate student at the University of New Haven. For my Honors Thesis, I am exploring the role of School Resource Officers (SRO) in schools. I am looking for schools that regularly have one or more resource officer(s) present in their community, and who engage with the student population. If applicable, I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to connect with your SRO via Zoom, to further explore their role.
Their participation in this study would include a recorded, interview-style meeting over Zoom to discuss their daily responsibilities, functions, and interactions as a School Resource Officer. Any identifying information will remain confidential including the school’s name and the SRO’s name.
Please let me know if participation in this study is something that (School Name) School’s SRO would be interested in, and I can follow up with more information. This research study is supervised by Dr. David Myers at the University of New Haven.
Interview Introduction Script
Hello (SRO’s name), thank you so much for agreeing to this interview to help with my research. How are you today?
I would like to confirm that you have read and understood the terms of the consent form, correct?
Please note that all responses will remain anonymous, so you should not state your name, the name of your school or district, or any individual names as you respond to the interview questions. If, at any point, there is a question that you do not feel comfortable answering, please let me know, and we can move on to a different question.
Do you have any questions for me before we begin?
I will now start an audio recording of this meeting.
(Proceed with interview questions)
At this time, I will now end the recording.
Do you have any questions for me?
Thank you for participating in this research project. If you have any questions or concerns about this study later, please feel free to contact me. Thank you very much for meeting with me today.
Please note that these semi-structured questions were included in every interview, but individual differences occurred as appropriate. The researcher asked the participant to clarify something they said or to elaborate on some part of their answer. Additionally, specific follow-up questions were asked depending on the officer’s initial response to the question as described below.
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