Police in Schools: Public Perceptions

Brad A. Myrstol

"Police in Schools: Public Perceptions" by Brad A. Myrstol. Alaska Justice Forum 27(3): 1, 5–8 (Fall 2010). This articles provides a history of School Resource Officers (SROs) — certified, sworn police officers who are employed by a local police agency but are assigned to work in local schools — and presents results of public perceptions of SROs in Anchorage School District schools based on questions in the 2009 Anchorage Community Survey.

Over the past two decades the United States has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of sworn police officers assigned to schools. Prompted by several high-profile incidents of school violence in the 1990s in places like West Paducah, Kentucky (1997), Springfield, Oregon (1998), Jonesboro, Arkansas (1998), and perhaps most memorably in Littleton, Colorado (1999), school administrators have taken a number of steps in an effort to improve school safety. Leading the way have been technological solutions, particularly the use of metal detectors and surveillance cameras. While these sorts of technologies were used prior to the high profile incidents of school violence that occurred in the 1990s, their use was largely limited to the most crime-ridden, urban schools. Now these forms of enhanced surveillance have spread to suburban and even rural schools. In addition to these technological strategies, school administrators have also turned to policy innovations to control crime and delinquency. One example of this is the creation of policies and procedures for more tightly controlling access to school campuses and buildings, limiting weapons on campus, and developing crisis drills for faculty, staff, and students.

Another approach to dealing with increased concerns about school and student safety has been for school administrators to increase the number of security staff and police working in schools. The addition of School Resource Officers (SROs)—certified, sworn police officers who are employed by a local police agency but are assigned to work in local schools—has been especially popular. Conceptually, in their role as SROs, police officers engage in three broad classes of activity: (1) law enforcement, (2) teaching, and (3) mentoring. As sworn officers, SROs are required to perform law enforcement activities like investigating crimes, apprehending criminal suspects, and acting as first responders in the event of emergencies and immediate threats to school safety. However, officers are also expected to educate students about the law and crime prevention, as well as the profession of policing. Finally, SROs are supposed to mentor students and serve as role models.

In practice SROs operate on a continuum, with a heavy emphasis on law enforcement at one end, and an emphasis on teaching and mentoring at the other. Observational data suggest that there is wide inter- and intra-departmental variation in the emphasis placed on each of these roles depending upon the type of school to which an SRO is assigned (i.e., a middle school vs. a high school), the personality and particular orientation of an SRO, and the level of crime and disorder in a school.

COPS in Schools

While there is a long history of police occasionally working in schools, the permanent assignment of sworn police officers to schools is a relatively recent development. Prior to the 1990s, the number of sworn police officers working in schools was small. But increasing fears about school violence, coupled with the surge of interest in community policing throughout the 1990s, produced rapid increases in the number of sworn officers working in public schools in the United States. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows a significant increase in the number of local police agencies employing full-time SROs. In the late 1990s approximately a third of local police and sheriffs’ departments employed SROs. By 2003 an estimated 43 percent of local police departments and 47 percent of sheriffs’ departments in the United States employed full-time SROs. School resource officers are especially common in larger jurisdictions. Roughly 80 percent of police departments and 73 percent of sheriffs’ offices serving jurisdictions of 100,000 or more residents maintain an SRO program; in cities with populations between 250,000 and 499,999 residents, more than 90 percent of departments employ full-time SROs. Altogether, local police and sheriffs’ departments employ an estimated 20,000 SROs. (In all states except Alaska and Hawaii, sheriffs’ departments are responsible for the provision of police services in unincorporated areas.)

Much of the growth of SROs can be directly traced to the efforts of the federal government. As part of its overall effort to advance community policing (which emphasizes police-community cooperation, community input, and frequent positive police-citizen interactions), in 1999 the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) initiated the COPS in Schools grant program to facilitate the hiring of SROs to engage in community policing in and around primary and secondary schools. The COPS in Schools effort has two primary objectives: (1) to improve student and school safety, and (2) to help police agencies build collaborative partnerships with local schools.

The COPS office provided the first round of funding for the COPS in Schools program in April of 1999. Between 1999 and 2005, more than $750 million was awarded to more than 3,000 agencies for hiring SROs and approximately $23 million more for the training of SROs and the administrators of participating schools. The COPS office has also awarded an additional $11.5 million through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative and the Office of Justice Programs’ Gang Reduction Project.

Prior Research on the Impact of SRO Programs

Despite the massive financial investments by the federal government to initiate SRO programs and train police officers, and the widespread adoption of programs across the country, relatively little is known about how SRO programs operate, and even less is known about their ability to achieve programmatic goals. The few studies that have examined SRO programs have concluded that very few conduct useful or valid assessments. One study that surveyed more than 1,100 police chiefs across the country revealed that only rarely do police departments or school districts develop means for assessing the effectiveness of SRO programs.

The bulk of research examining the impact of SRO programs has focused on their subjective impacts—how the introduction of SROs into local schools has affected attitudes and perceptions of students, faculty, and school administrators. In general, this research has shown that principals believe SRO programs are effective in reducing crime and delinquency within the confines of schools, and that the presence of SROs within schools can improve students’ attitudes and perceptions of police, increase students’ willingness to report incidents of crime/delinquency to police, and enhance students’ feelings of safety while at school.

The Anchorage SRO Program: An Overview

The Anchorage SRO program utilizes a catchment system approach whereby officers are assigned to a specific high school, but are also responsible for all of the schools that feed their assigned high school. The Anchorage Police Department (APD) and the Anchorage School District (ASD) initiated the city’s School Resource Officer program in May 2003. SROs entered Anchorage schools for the first time in the fall of the 2003–04 school year. A total of 18 officers (16 SROs, 1 sergeant, 1 lieutenant) are assigned to the initiative, a total that matches the national average for police agencies serving populations between 250,000 and 499,999 residents. The manpower APD commits to the SRO program, while modest in overall magnitude, is considerable given the department’s limited pool of officers.

APD maintains a ratio of 4.8 SROs for every 100 non-SRO sworn officers (see Table 1). This ratio evidences the department’s commitment to its SRO program. This dedication is notable because, unlike some urban school districts in the U.S., crime and violence are not frequent occurrences in Anchorage schools, although there have been a limited number of high-profile incidents. The intent of the Anchorage SRO program is to adopt a different model of engagement with the community: permanently assigning officers to schools provides students with structured opportunities to experience positive interactions with police officers. Instead of only coming into contact with officers within the context of some sort of incident, students get the opportunity to see officers as something other than merely “enforcers.”

Table 1. Number of Sworn Police Officers and School Resource Officers

APD retains supervisory control over officers and, up until now, has covered all of the program’s personnel costs. Recently, however, ASD has taken on the responsibility of covering half of the personnel costs of the program’s SROs due to budgetary constraints at APD. In addition, the ASD provides officers with office space and supplies. Under the current program, the role of SROs is quite distinct from that of the security officers employed by the school district.

According to APD, the aim of the Anchorage SRO program is to “provide a positive law enforcement influence that concentrates on safety and security, encourages relationships between officers, administrators, teachers and students, and fosters education.” The program’s motto is Ensuring the Safety of Your School. APD identifies six specific goals for the program:

  1. To enhance safety in and around schools;
  2. To reduce juvenile delinquency and crime in the community;
  3. To build trust and positive relationships with students;
  4. To increase school attendance;
  5. To enhance the learning environment, specifically through anti-bullying efforts; and
  6. To provide a high level of police service to the Anchorage School District.

The Current Study: Public Perceptions of the Anchorage SRO Program

This study presents results for a series of 29 questions exploring public perceptions of the Anchorage SRO program that were included in the most recent Anchorage Community Survey. Respondents were first asked three questions about school resource officer programs, in general. Each participant was asked about: (1) their familiarity with school resource officer programs, (2) whether or not the ASD should participate in a school resource officer program, and, (3) whether or not the ASD currently participates in a school resource officer program. Each respondent was then asked to register their level of agreement or disagreement with 26 statements about the efficacy of school resource officer initiatives.

The data presented in Tables 2 and 3 have been weighted using census information to provide population estimates for each survey item. For this study, the population of interest is persons 18 years of age and older who reside in Anchorage households. Each table also presents the margin of error for each survey item.

Table 2 presents the results for the first three survey items. A large majority of Anchorage adults—in excess of 71 percent—reported at least some familiarity with the foundational precept of school resource officer programs—that is, the permanent assignment of police officers to schools as a means to provide for the safety and welfare of students, faculty, and staff. Slightly fewer, 68 percent, indicated that the ASD should participate in an SRO program. Notably, although the ASD and APD have partnered to administer the municipality’s SRO program for seven years, only half of Anchorage adults are aware of the initiative.

Table 2. Familiarity, Perceived Needs, and Current Participation: SRO Progam

Table 3 presents the results for the remaining 26 items designed to assess public perceptions about the efficacy of SRO programs, grouped into seven categories: Crime/Delinquency, School Environment, Community Quality of Life, Police-Community Relations, Student Education, Police Outcomes, and Unintended Consequences. With respect to the ability of SRO programs to impact the prevalence of crime/delinquency, Anchorage adults expressed a great deal of confidence in the ability of SRO programs to reduce the occurrence of delinquent behavior, particularly delinquency that occurs within schools. An estimated 81.5 percent reported that SRO programs are a good way to reduce violent crime in schools, and more than 75 percent stated that SROs are a good way to reduce property crimes in schools and vandalism of school property. Smaller majorities (ranging between 56.8% and 61.7%) expressed confidence in the ability of SROs to deter children from committing acts of delinquency, reduce rates of juvenile crime more generally, reduce drug use by children, and instill the ideal of “respect for law.” In sum, most Anchorage adults believe that an SRO program is an effective way to not simply control, but reduce, juvenile crime/delinquency.

Table 3. Attitudes and Perceptions of School Resource Officer Programs

Given these results, it was not surprising to find that nearly all (87.7%) Anchorage adults view an SRO program as an effective means to improve the safety of schools. Importantly, however, slightly less than two-thirds (65.2%) thought that placing police in schools would assist with establishing order in schools. (Although a definitive answer is difficult to discern with these data, the sizeable difference in public perceptions about the ability of SROs to enhance “safety,” on the one hand, and establish “order” on the other, may provide some clues as to the public’s conception of the role of police in schools.) A majority of Anchorage adults also expressed the view that SROs can help curtail bullying in schools. People were much less optimistic about the ability of SROs to impact truancy, however. Only a fifth of Anchorage adults (20.8%) agreed that an SRO program is a good way to improve student attendance.

Anchorage adults expressed optimism with respect to the potential spill-over effects of an SRO program. An estimated 67.1 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the notion that placing police in schools was a good way to enhance overall neighborhood safety, 67.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed that an SRO program could help control drug dealing around schools, and 52.9 percent agreed or strongly agreed that SROs can assist with the control of vandalism in surrounding neighborhoods. Overall, a majority (56.9%) of Anchorage adults agreed or strongly agreed that an SRO program can improve community quality of life. Thus, these data suggest that Anchorage adults are confident that an SRO program can benefit not only schools, but also the communities in which they are embedded.

Results also revealed that Anchorage adults have a great deal of confidence in the ability of an SRO program to positively impact the nature of the relationship between the APD and the municipality’s residents. An estimated 61.6 percent reported that permanently assigning police to schools is a good way to improve students’ attitudes toward police, and 70.4 percent indicated that an SRO program could be an effective means to build a relationship of trust between students and police officers. Nearly 75 percent stated that an SRO program would be a good way to build police-community relations, not only within the context of schools but more broadly as well. Finally, more than 80 percent of Anchorage adults felt that an SRO program would be an effective mechanism for establishing a partnership between the APD and the ASD.

A majority of Anchorage adults also recognized the potential educational benefits of an SRO program. More than half (58.2%) felt an SRO program would contribute to students’ understanding of the law and legal system, and nearly two-thirds (62.6%) stated exposure to police officers in a school environment would help students learn about law enforcement careers. In addition, the survey also showed that many people think SRO programs provide an educational benefit to police officers, not just students. Nearly 70 percent (68.5%) thought that being assigned to work in a school would help to broaden officers’ perspectives. More practically, slightly less than a majority of Anchorage adults (48.1%) felt an SRO program would help police conduct investigations.

In addition to asking respondents to provide their views on the ability of an SRO program to positively affect a number of areas such as reducing crime/delinquency, improving the environment within schools, etc., the survey presented three questions relating to potential “unintended consequences” of SRO programs. Notably, although Anchorage adults did express some reservations about assigning police to schools, most were dubious about possible negative effects of such an initiative. More than half (58.8%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the notion that an SRO program would create additional barriers between students and police. An even larger percentage of Anchorage adults (66.6%) doubted that the introduction of police into schools would have the paradoxical effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, fear among students, faculty, and staff. Finally, 67.9 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the presence of SROs would serve to undermine the authority of school officials.

Summary

The aim of this study was not to evaluate the effectiveness of the Anchorage SRO program. Rather, the intent was to examine the extent to which Anchorage adults are aware of the foundational principles of an SRO program, to gauge public opinion with respect to the need for an SRO program in Anchorage, to measure public awareness of the municipality’s current SRO initiative, and to assess public perceptions of the ability of SROs to achieve a variety of programmatic objectives.

The results of the study are striking. While only half of all Anchorage adults are aware that the ASD and the APD have administered a district-wide SRO program for nearly seven years, large majorities are at least familiar with the concept of an SRO program (71.1%) and believe the school district and police department should partner to provide an SRO program to Anchorage schools (68%). Furthermore, Anchorage adults expressed a great deal of confidence in the ability of an SRO program to achieve its programmatic objectives. Residents believe that the permanent assignment of police in schools is a good way to reduce crime/delinquency; enhance the overall climate of schools; improve community quality of life; strengthen the bonds between police and the community; educate students about law, the legal system and law enforcement careers; and have a positive impact on the police department as well. Finally, Anchorage adults expressed little concern that an SRO program would produce negative unintended consequences—creating additional barriers between police and students, increasing the level of fear in schools, and undermining the authority of school officials.

What do you think about School Resource Officers?

Are there other important factors that should be considered when attempting to explain public perceptions and attitudes toward SROs and SRO programs? Please share your thoughts. Send comments and/or suggestions for future avenues of investigation on this topic to the author at bmyrstol@uaa.alaska.edu.

Questions Remaining to be Explored

This article outlines the contours of public perceptions about school resource officer programs. It does not attempt to explain any of the patterns presented. Consequently, it is possible—perhaps even likely—that it presents more questions than it does answers. For the purposes of creating engaged public policy debate, this is, on the whole, a desirable outcome. So what sorts of additional questions might be asked with respect to the public opinion data presented here? What are the factors that you think might shape people’s perceptions of, and attitudes toward, SRO programs? Here are some potential candidates: demographic characteristics, parental/guardianship status, fear of crime, criminal victimization, prior experience with the criminal justice system (especially police), and attitudes toward the police, in general. It is hoped this article will elicit a response from readers to these questions, and we look forward to continuing the dialog about this topic.

Brad Myrstol is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.