F. Chris Curran, University of Maryland Baltimore County – School Resource Officers and Discipline

More and more schools have law enforcement in the hallways.

F. Chris Curran, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discusses how this affects schools during normal times.

I am an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s (UMBC) School of Public Policy.  I conduct research on education policy with an emphasis on improving educational outcomes for underserved and disadvantaged youth.  My research interests include school discipline, early elementary education, and teacher labor markets.

School Resource Officers and Discipline

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Following recent school shootings, policymakers across the country have moved to increase law enforcement in schools.  School resource officers or SROs may mitigate loss of life in an act of violence, but research raises concerns that they may also increase the use of exclusionary discipline practices like suspension.

While the National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that SROs not be involved in formal discipline, research my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that “not being involved in discipline” may be in the eye of the beholder.

In our study’s schools, views of SROs’ involvement in discipline vary widely.  In one district, over 90% of SROs and three quarters of principals report that SROs do not participate in discipline, yet more than 8 in 10 teachers and parents report that they do. 

What explains these differences?

It turns out that “discipline” is understood differently by different individuals.  We find that SROs often view verbally reprimanding a student or talking to a misbehaving student as a part of maintaining safety or an act of informal counseling, rather than discipline.  In contrast, teachers may categorize such acts as discipline.

Such ambiguity means that SROs in our study varied in how they interpreted the district policy that they not discipline.  For one SRO, verbally correcting a student running in the hall was “threading the lines of his job description” while for another doing so was simply acting as any adult would to ensure the student’s safety.

In some cases, we found that these differences resulted in tension between school personnel and SROs with regard to how an SRO should approach misbehavior.  Furthermore, across the schools, these differences could alter the likelihood that a student experiences a disciplinary consequence.

As SROs expand to new settings, it is important for school and law enforcement leadership to consider the full range of SRO involvement in discipline.  Broad policies stating that SROs should not be involved in discipline leave a lot of room for interpretation and, as our research shows, such interpretation may not be consistent across all stakeholders.

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