On Dec. 1, a new North Carolina law took effect that allows school districts to hire local law enforcement officers to work as school resource officers on school campuses. This effort is part of a school safety program approved in the state budget. North Carolina should rethink this direction and instead pursue more effective strategies that build supportive, not punitive, school communities.
The new law follows the past decades exponential increase in funds for SROs. In North Carolina, funding for school resource officers increased 249 percent from 1995 to 2009. Yet evidence suggests that SROs do not make schools safer. In fact, research by Legal Aid of North Carolina shows that SROs can have a negative impact on students and schools by increasing arrests and court referrals for minor misbehavior; disrupting the learning environment by creating an atmosphere of hostility, suspicion and fear; and undermining the authority of teachers and school administrators.
Furthermore, SROs disproportionately target students of color. The Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice found that African Americans were consistently three times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than students of other racial classifications, even though no evidence suggests that African-American students act out more than white students. In fact, African-American children with no previous time in a juvenile facility are locked up at six times the rate of white students charged with similar offenses, and many of these arrests are made by SROs.
The addition of more school resource officers comes at a time when funding for North Carolinas public schools is undergoing major cuts. The 2014 budget cuts K-12 funding by $180 million, which includes cutting 5,000 teacher positions, 3,800 teaching assistant positions, and 300 school counselors and support staff. .
Instead of adding more police officers to arrest students, school districts should focus on doing a better job of prevention. Programs such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, which have been used in cities from New Bedford, Mass., to Bossier City, Louisiana, could help prevent misbehavior and foster caring school communities. PBIS is a prevention-oriented system of creating evidence-based behavioral interventions to enhance academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, schools with PBIS decreased problematic behavior by 90 percent.
Restorative justice programs, which involve both the victim and perpetrator focusing on their personal needs, provide another effective alternative; these programs encourage offenders to take responsibility for their actions and give back to the community to rectify their misdemeanor. Schools in historically violent school communities such as Oakland, Chicago, Denver, and Portland are beginning to use this approach. .
While promoting alternatives to SROs should be a top priority, schools can also improve school safety by requiring SROs to have training in students rights and adolescent development. If SROs better understand why students behave the way they do, then they will be better able to effectively ensure students safety.
Schools should also establish clear rules specifying what SROs can and cannot do, and publicize those rules, to avoid misunderstandings. For instance, studies show that SROs create a hostile school environment by sending the message to students that they are criminals, not students. For that reason, and to avoid undermining the authority of teachers and administrators, schools should prohibit SROs from disciplining students who misbehave.
School districts have the power to create positive school environments for their students. Doing so will be taking a step toward greater school safety and student success.
Amanda Young is a public policy/Arabic studies major at Duke University.