For all the benefits of having armed officers in schools, things can and often do go wrong, too.
In the wake of horrific shootings in Parkland, Fla., and elsewhere, Americans have grown increasingly concerned about school safety. That doesn’t mean they want teachers to carry guns, however. In this year’s PDK poll, only about a third of respondents said they would support that option. By contrast, 80% of parents would favor posting armed police officers at their child’s school.
Does having police officers on hand actually make schools more safe? The poll findings suggest that most Americans feel more comfortable, at least, when their local school has an armed officer on-site, ready to respond if there’s an emergency. When I was a district superintendent, I certainly valued their presence. And over the years, I’ve met numerous officers who worked extraordinarily hard not just to ensure a safe environment but also to mentor individual students, connect with their families, and play positive roles in the community. Like everything else in public education, though, there are at least two sides to this story. For all the benefits of having armed officers in schools, things can and often do go wrong, too.
The problems are seldom discussed
Of those schools that have armed officers on-site, most receive partial funding from the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, a federal program that began in the 1950s but didn’t really take off until Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994. According to the New York Times (2013), only about 1% of the nation’s schools had a police presence in the mid-1970s; 40% did by 2008. As a result, many schools have become tightly connected to their local police departments, collaborating in ways they never did in past decades. Further, since schools and police account for the bulk of public spending in most municipalities, politicians tends to associate the two departments with each other closely during budget negotiations.
As a superintendent, I often worked in partnership with my counterparts in the local police force. But I felt deeply conflicted about this, given that the police sometimes mistreated my students (and their families), especially students of color. For all the wonderful officers who worked in my districts, there were others who needlessly antagonized students and escalated minor conflicts with them, willfully disregarding their own rules of engagement.
In public, most superintendents are reluctant to air even the mildest criticism of the police who work in their schools — parents and community members tend to view those officers as noble guardians of their children’s safety, and they don’t look kindly on people who would speak ill of them. Privately, though, many district leaders will tell you that if they had a choice, they’d rather not have armed officers in the schools at all. (To be fair, I also know police commanders who privately express frustration with their local school leaders, accusing them of abusing their authority, ignoring police protocols, and ordering officers to intimidate and crack down on students they want to push out of the school. Criticism goes both ways.)
One common problem has to do with the selection of officers. In theory, both the police department and local educators want the job to go to officers who enjoy working with young people. The ideal SRO cares deeply about youth development and understands the school’s mission and values. However, department seniority and overtime rules often dictate who actually gets the job. Further, school and district leaders may have little or no say as to which officers are chosen and where they’re placed. In any given school then, the SRO may be someone who doesn’t agree with the school’s mission and culture, who the principal had no hand in choosing, and who doesn’t answer to them.
For all the wonderful officers who worked in my districts, there were others who needlessly antagonized students and escalated minor conflicts with them, willfully disregarding their own rules of engagement.
Another problem has to do with work rules and logistics. For example, the police department’s work hours might not overlap with the school district’s schedule. Thus, the SRO may not be on duty during critical times such as the beginning and end of the school day. I’ve known principals who had no idea when the officer might be absent or, if so, whether there would be a substitute. Further, some SROs require an office and/or desk within the school, which can compromise administrative duties and FERPA regulations. I’ve also seen conflicts erupt over the SRO’s location in the school — the principal may want them to be positioned in a certain hallway, say, at a certain time of the day. But if SROs don’t report to the principal, then they cannot be compelled to follow that request. I’ve seen principals get angry and complain to supervising officers, but I’ve also seen them give up and let their SROs do whatever they want.
Much more serious are problems that have to do with the ways SROs interact with students and respond to conflicts within the school and the surrounding community. For instance, I’ve seen SROs yell at kids for minor infractions in a school that was working hard to establish a positive culture of respect among children and adults. I’ve heard of students being arrested in class and taken away in handcuffs for something that occurred outside school, even though this went against district rules. Likewise, I’ve seen cases where students got into a fight and the principal responded by offering conflict resolution, only to learn that the SRO decided to charge the participants with a crime.
Further, the greater the presence of armed officers in schools, the greater the political conflict over who pays for them. Inevitably, when the time comes to wrangle over local education funding, some politicians will argue that SROs’ main job is to promote school safety, not public safety, which suggests that the expense ought to come out of the school system’s budget. As superintendent, I stood firm against that argument — I didn’t want to pay for employees over whom I had no authority, and I didn’t want politicians to set a precedent of charging the district for every single thing that occurs in or around a school building. In my districts, the police chiefs agreed with me. But not all superintendents will be so lucky, and they should be prepared to push back against politicians who want them to bear the cost of bringing armed officers onto their campuses.
Minimizing the risks
District leaders can reduce the problems associated with having armed officers in their schools by taking a handful of common-sense measures:
- Develop a strong relationship with the chief of police and other police department leaders, and encourage local principals to do the same. If and when there’s a crisis, these relationships will be critical. Personally, during my time in Montgomery County, I found it incredibly valuable to maintain a close partnership with the police chief, Tom Manger, who was forthcoming, thoughtful, and always willing to work with me and my team to make sure we agreed on what makes for a safe and positive school environment.
- Define a clear vision for ensuring school safety, and share it with principals, police department leaders, parents, and elected officials. Everybody should know why there are armed officers in the schools and what roles they play.
- Agree on a clear memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the district and the police department, spelling out precisely who will make specific kinds of decisions about school safety matters and what laws and regulations will guide the actions of individual officers. That MOU should be shared with parents, community members, and the press, to prevent the spread of rumors and disinformation about the police presence in the schools.
- Work with the police department to decide exactly which kinds of school safety data will be collected and reported to the public. Neither school leaders nor police officials should be taken by surprise when the other shares information about campus incidents, student-on-student crime, the confiscation of weapons, or other matters.
- Conduct regular training (on crisis response procedures, for example) that involves district leaders, school administrators, and police department officials working together, both to anticipate and prepare for problems and to strengthen professional relationships.
The American public doesn’t consider violence to be the most pressing issue facing schools today. According to the PDK poll, however, recent school shootings have elevated the issue in the minds of parents. Thus, if federal and state officials continue to do little to prevent such tragedies, many local communities will likely take it upon themselves to decide on and fund their own solutions, perhaps by bringing armed officers into their schools.
Having SROs on campus can certainly help reassure parents, students, and educators. Ideally, their presence will also deter those who would commit violent acts in schools, or at least minimize the damage those people can inflict. But I hope that local education leaders, police officials, and community members will also do the hard work of negotiating clear and explicit agreements as to what roles those officers will play, who will supervise them, what kinds of school safety information will be shared, and so on. To ensure SROs make positive contributions to our schools — and to minimize the chance that they will harm our students — we must all be exceptionally careful to make sure we’re on the same page.
New York Times Editorial Board. (2013, April 18). Criminalizing children at school. The New York Times.
Citation: Starr, J.P. (2018, forthcoming). On leadership: Armed officers in schools: The good, bad, and ugly. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3).