School Resource Officers and Students’ Feelings of Safety at School

Date01 April 2016
Published date01 April 2016
Subject MatterArticles
School Resource Officers
and Students’ Feelings of
Safety at School
Matthew T. Theriot
and John G. Orme
The number of school resource officers (SROs) placed at schools has increased dramatically. These
officers are tasked with making schools safer, yet the effect of interacting with SROs on students’
feelings of safety needs more investigation. To address this need, 1,956 middle and high school
students were surveyed. Latent class analysis identified two groups of students, one who felt safe and
another who did not. Regression showed that interacting with SROs was unrelated to these feelings
of safety; instead, African American students and victimized students felt less safe while males,
students with more school connectedness, and students with more positive attitudes about SROs
felt safer.
school resource officers, student perceptions, school safety, school violence
The purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of interacting with school resource officers
(SROs) on students’ feelings of safety at school. The number of SROs assigned to American schools
has increased during the past two decades. Since the first SRO program was started in Flint, Michi-
gan, in the 1950s, school–police partnerships have existed in the United States; however, a series of
federal incentives beginning in the 1990s dramatically accelerated the number of SROs deployed at
American schools (Brown, 2006; Kupchik & Bracy, 2010; Nolan, 2011). Beginning with the Safe
Schools Act of 1994, federal funds were allocated to improve security and combat criminal behavior
at schools with high crime rates. Although these funds were frequently used to hire law enforcement
personnel in addition to other security measures, federal funding began to focus specifically on
expanding SRO programs in the late 1990s following several high-profile incidents of lethal school
violence. This included a 1998 amendment to the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act
as well as grants distributed to schools from the Office of Community Oriented Police Services
College of Social Work, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matthew T. Theriot, College of Social Work, The University of Tennessee, 310 Henson Hall, Knoxville, TN 37996, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2016, Vol. 14(2) 130-146
ªThe Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204014564472
(COPS Office; Girouard, 2001; Kupchik & Bracy, 2010; Nolan, 2011; Raymond, 2010). Most
recently, SROs were a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s plan for improving school safety
in the aftermath of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. The
president’s plan to protect children and reduce gun violence specifically called for creating federal
incentives for schools to hire SROs and adding up to 1,000 more SROs and counselors to schools
across the United States (White House, 2013). In 2013, 144 agencies received funding through the
COPS Office in the U.S. Department of Justice to hire a total of 370 new SROs (Community
Oriented Policing Services, n.d.).
SROs are expected to be visible and central figures at their schools. They are charged with diverse
tasks such as patrolling school buildings and grounds, investigating delinquency complaints, assist-
ing with student discipline, educating students and staff about safety and violence prevention, and
mentoring students (Bracy, 2010; Finn, Shively, McDevitt, Lassiter, & Rich, 2005; Kupchik &
Bracy, 2010; Lawrence, 2007; Rich & Finn, 2001). These officers usually are armed and in uniform.
Although they are encouraged to have extensive training in school-based policing topics like crisis
and classroom management and adolescent development, there are no consistent training require-
ments so the level and quality of training received by SROs varies across schools and districts (Kim
& Geronimo, 2010).
Given their comprehensive duties and the expectation that they be prominent figures at schools, it
is reasonable to expect that SROs will impact students’ feelings of safety. However, the relationship
between interacting with an SRO and this sense of safety has not been adequately researched
(Brown, 2006; Juvonen, 2001; Watkins & Maume, 2011). There are important reasons to suspect
that the presence of uniformed police officers at schools might dramatically affect students’ feelings
of safety. Although a visible police presence is expected to deter violent behavior and reassure stu-
dents, community-based research has found that a high-profile police presence actually makes some
people feel less safe (Bridenball & Jesilow, 2005; Dukes & Hughes, 2004; Hinkle & Weisburd,
2008). In these studies, respondents viewed heightened police patrols in their communities as indi-
cative of more crime and disorder and thus felt more vulnerable to victimization. Juvonen (2001,
p. 3) expressed concerns that uniformed school police officers could ‘‘breed a sense of mistrust
among students’’ and hence negatively affect the campus climate. This apprehension and anxiety
could stem in part from the potential conflict between the officers’ law enforcement role and their
roles as a mentor and confidante to students (Kupchik & Bracy, 2010). If students confide about ille-
gal activity, for example, SROs are obligated to take action that could result in disciplinary conse-
quences for students. For example, Bracy (2010) quoted a student who remarked that the SRO is nice
initially but, if you upset him, he will follow you in the halls and search for opportunities to take you
to the office. Conversely, McDevitt and Panniello (2005) found that the majority of students at sev-
eral middle and high schools in their study felt comfortable reporting a crime to their SRO, although
this feeling was not strongly influenced by actually interacting with an SRO. This is consistent with
Bracy’s findings that students often view SROs as friendly in the halls and comfortable for bantering
but are reluctant to approach the officers for counseling or mentoring.
Building trusting relationships with students often requires a gentler and softer approach that is
different from the more assertive and conflict-oriented training received by police officers (Kupchik
& Bracy, 2010). Some SROs recognize this potential conflict and attempt to avoid being a counselor
to students while others are more interested in this role (Bracy, 2010). This sometimes results in
awkward, inappropriate, or uncomfortable interactions between SROs and students. Bracy (2010,
p. 110) described an interaction wherein an SRO said ‘‘I love you’’ to a female high school student
in an attempt to be fatherly and, in another example, an SRO described one of his colleagues as a
‘‘little weird’’ and expressed concern about the way he mentors female students at the school (Kup-
chik & Bracy, 2010). Hyman and Perone (1998) and Mayer and Leone (1999) reported that more
aggressive police tactics actually led to increased school disorder and misbehavior. This includes
Theriot and Orme 131

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