Perceptions of School Resource Officers: Protectors or Prosecutors*?

Published date01 September 2023
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/07340168221113352
AuthorMatthew Almanza,Makayla Mason,Chris Melde
Date01 September 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Perceptions of School Resource
Ofcers: Protectors or
Prosecutors*?
Matthew Almanza
1
, Makayla Mason
1
,
and Chris Melde
1
Abstract
Since the 1990s there has been a signicant rise in the number of police ofcers in schools. There
have been growing concerns regarding the effects of school resource ofcers (SRO) on students
long-term outcomes and whether or not they are an effective aspect of school safety. Public opin-
ion, especially among key stakeholder groups, impacts policy and practice decisions, and, therefore,
there is a need to examine and synthesize the current state of the literature on stakeholder percep-
tions of SROs. We conducted a systematic review of the literature regarding student, teacher, prin-
cipal, parent, and SRO perceptions of the role and effectiveness of SROs. The ndings across thirty-
one publications suggest that key stakeholder groups largely report SROs as a positive presence
within schools. Findings are mixed across studies, however, and key differences in perceptions of
law enforcement among important school stakeholder populations are discussed.
Keywords
systematic review, school resource ofcers, school-to-prison pipeline, perceptions, school safety
Introduction
The presence of police ofcers in schools has become commonplace in recent decades, largely in
response to high prole school shootings and on the heels of a spike in youth violence in the
early 1990s (James & McCallion, 2013). Research over the last decade, however, has highlighted
the potential for school disciplinary practices to have long-term negative consequences on youth,
especially those that lead to exclusionary (e.g., out of school suspension, expulsion) or punitive
1
School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
*
This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement No. 2019-YS-BX-K001awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the U.S. Department of JusticesOfce of Justice Programs, which also
includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Ofce of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention, the Ofce for Victims of Crime, and the Ofce of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending,
Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily rep-
resent the ofcial position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Corresponding Author:
Makayla Mason, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA.
Email: masonmak@msu.edu
Article
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(3) 318-338
© 2022 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/07340168221113352
journals.sagepub.com/home/cjr
legal responses (e.g., arrest; Skiba et al., 2014). Studies have indicated that the presence of a school
resource ofcer (SRO) increases the likelihood that students will be disciplined and arrested for
offenses that were once resolved through non-legal means by school staff and administration
(Bleakley & Bleakley, 2018; Chan et al., 2019; Na & Gottfredson, 2013). These legal responses
to student misbehavior have been described as having long-term negative consequences on life
course development, including an increased risk of school dropout, arrest, and incarceration; a
process commonly referred to as the school-to-prison-pipeline (Bleakley & Bleakley, 2018;
Owens, 2017; Theriot, 2009). An example of the school-to-prison-pipeline is as follows: schools
with overly punitive or zero tolerance policies use SROs or other police to respond to student mis-
behavior. Ofcers then arrest the students, and this arrest creates a precedent where the student is
ofcially labeled as problematic. Further misbehavior and arrests only enhance the idea among
school staff and law enforcement that this student is a criminal, and they begin to treat the student
as such. Subsequent to their arrest, the student may drop out of school, which puts them at high
risk for future unemployment and further increases the risk of criminal behavior.
It was this process, and the possibility of long-term negative consequences associated with the
presence of law enforcement in schools, that has recently led school ofcials in Portland, Denver,
Oakland, and Minneapolis to no longer include law enforcement in their public schools for the fore-
seeable future (Balingit et al., 2020). Similarly, Seattle public schools moved to suspend the use of
SROs in their schools for a year (Balingit et al., 2020; Yu, 2020). As indicated in a tweet by the super-
intendent of Portland Public Schools Guadalupe Guerrero, one of the primary reasons for school of-
cials to move away from using SROs in their schools is a desire to replace the traditionally punitive
role of police ofcers with counselors and social workers who would act in ways more consistent
with restorative practices (Yu, 2020).
Despite calls for reinvestment in alternative ofcial responses to student misbehavior (e.g.,
through social workers and school psychologists; American Civil Liberties Union, 2022) and the
removal of SROs from several prominent school districts, there are still those who believe police
are essential to school safety (Balingit et al., 2020). This presents researchers and policymakers
with an interesting conundrum: while there is an apparently growing proportion of the U.S. public
losing condence in police ofcers as a whole, and research has documented reason for concern
with respect to the impact of SROs on student development through their use of punitive disciplinary
practices, several school stakeholder groups still feel that police in schools are an important aspect of
school safety. Research suggests that as long as public support for SROs as a school safety measure is
high, policymakers and local school ofcials are likely to continue using police ofcers in school
(Pickett, 2019), even in the face of high costs (Burton et al., 2021), suggesting a systematic under-
standing of stakeholder perceptions of SROs is important.
The purpose of this paper is to present a systematic review of the recent scientic literature regard-
ing perceptions of the roles and effectiveness of SROs among a number of stakeholders (students,
teachers, principals/administrators, parents, and SROs) in order to document how these key
groups have come to understand the role of police in schools. This is important because if SROs
are perceived to be an effective or necessary component of school safety by a majority of stakehold-
ers, removing them from schools may have unintended negative consequences on those most imme-
diately impacted by their presence. In particular, the removal of SROs may lead students and staff to
feel less safe, which can negatively impact their educational experience and performance (Wang
et al., 2020). Conversely, if SRO presence is viewed as associated with negative outcomes by key
stakeholders, the presence of an SRO may have negative consequences (e.g., feelings of fear or alien-
ation among students who distrust the police) that would not exist if alternatives to police were used.
This paper explores the similarities and differences in perceptions of the roles and effectiveness of
SROs between school administrators, staff, students, teachers, parents and the SROs themselves.
It will begin with a review of the history of SROs, then move to a systematic review of the most
Almanza et al. 319

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