A Brief History of School-Based Law Enforcement

February 2016

The first time a law enforcement officer was permanently assigned to a United States school was in Flint, Michigan in the late 1950’s.4 The purpose of assigning police to school during this time was to provide a proactive approach to crime on the school grounds. The program was titled the “Police-School Liaison Program,” and administrators’ early opinions of it were generally positive. Based on this perceived satisfaction, other states followed with a similar strategy to deploy proactive policing in schools.7 Eventually these law enforcement officers came to be known as school resource officers (SROs).4

SROs are licensed peace officers employed by either the county or local law enforcement agency that are assigned permanently to serve the school district or campus.1, 9 When at school however, SROs are treated as school staff and supervised by the school’s principal in some cases; when not at the school, SROs are supervised by the law enforcement agency that employs them.1 A school-based law enforcement (SBLE) officer is another common title for officers that work in schools. Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, subtle differences exist between SBLE officers and SROs. Most often, SBLE officers are employed by the school district through a school-based law enforcement department, rather than a law enforcement agency. Thus, SBLE officers are employed by the school district in which they work.4

SROs are licensed peace officers employed by either the county or local law enforcement agency that are assigned permanently to serve the school district or campus.

Until the late 1990s, the use of law enforcement assigned to schools was limited. Only one percent of U.S. schools reported a stationed law enforcement officer in the 1970s.6 In 1997 however, law enforcement officers were present in 22 percent of schools nationally.2 During the 2003-2004 school year, principals reported law enforcement in 36 percent of schools, increasing to 40 percent by 2007-20085. Students have also reported an increase in law enforcement presence in schools. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 54 percent of students reported that security or law enforcement was present in their schools in 1999, while almost 70 percent reported law enforcement presence in 2013.

One likely reason for the increased presence of school-based law enforcement officers was the public’s perception of an increase in juvenile crime, especially school shootings, during the early 1990’s.4 It is believed that increasing youth violence in the community spilled over into schools. Many schools experiencing problematic behavior patterns were located in neighborhoods characterized as poor and socially disorganized.3 The federal government began to pass legislation in response to the public’s fear that juveniles were becoming more dangerous. For example, the Gun Free Act of 1994 gave schools the authority to have a “zero tolerance” policy towards weapons on school campuses. Schools throughout America broadened this policy to include illegal drugs and alcohol. This federal act removed the arbitrary nature of school policies and put formal disciplinary standards into place, such as zero tolerance policies. Law enforcement officers were the most obvious individuals that could be called on to enforce the new policies. But a duty to enforce was not the only reason schools began to adopt the school-based law enforcement philosophy.

The federal action that established a large amount of funding for law enforcement officers in schools throughout the United States was the creation of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The COPS office helped with defining, implementing, and standardizing community-oriented policing, which encompassed placing officers on school grounds.7 In 1999, the COPS office created the Cops in Schools (CIS) grant program, which awarded over $750 million for the hiring of more than 6,500 SROs.5 In total, the CIS program helped fund over 13,000 SROs in schools throughout the United States.8 In addition, some states have provided funding for hiring law enforcement in schools. Combining substantial funding with the threat of rampant juveniles, assigning police to schools became common practice.

Ongoing challenges have faced school-based law enforcement officers throughout their existence. One issue is a lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Typically, school-based law enforcement programs intend to follow the triad model, a combination of three primary roles: enforcing the law, counseling students, and teaching staff and student about safety issues. However, these responsibilities are vaguely defined and a lack of communication between school administration and the officers can create significant obstacles to progress (for further discussion on roles, see article). Another issue, pertaining to SROs more than SBLE, is their perception of the job itself. In some circumstances, law enforcement may see the job of working in schools as highly undesirable. A successful SRO program requires selection of the right individuals who find value in working at the school.9 Once an officer accepts the school-based assignment, providing appropriate training is necessary to give them the skills necessary to work in a new environment. While the responsibilities seem straightforward, police are not always accustomed to dealing with issues they will face in a school setting.

A successful SRO program requires selection of the right individuals who find value in working at the school.

To illustrate the need for specialized training, Texas passed legislation in 2015 that requires school districts with at least 30,000 students to educate and train law enforcement who work in the schools. Training topics include de-escalation techniques, mental and behavioral health needs, mental health crisis intervention, child and adolescent development and psychology, positive behavioral supports, conflict resolution techniques, and restorative justice. While many of these issues persist, SROs and SBLE officers remain an integral component to many school communities. To address many of the challenges that school-based law enforcement and administration faces, the National Institute of Justice has contributed over $144 million in funds to investigate a variety of school safety issues. Among these are projects that examine the roles, responsibilities, and training of school-based law enforcement.

For more information, visit the Texas School Safety Center website for other school-based law enforcement articles and events.


1 Coon, J. K., & Travis III, L. F. (2012). The role of police in public schools: a comparison of principal and police reports of activities in schools. Police Practice and Research, 13(1), 15-30.

2 Heaviside, S., Rowand, C., Williams, C., & Farris, E. (1998). Violence and discipline problems in US public schools: 1996-97 (NCES 98-030). Washington, DC: Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

3 Johnson, I.M. (1999). School violence: The effectiveness of a school resource officer program in a southern city. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(2).

4 McKenna, J. M., Martinez-Prather, K., & Bowman, S. W. (2014). The Roles of School-Based Law Enforcement Officers and How These Roles Are Established A Qualitative Study. Criminal Justice Policy Review.

5 Na, C., & Gottfredson, D. C. (2013). Police officers in schools: Effects on school crime and the processing of offending behaviors. Justice Quarterly,30(4), 619-650.

6 National Institute of Education. (1978). Violent schools——Safe schools: The safe school study report to congress. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

7 Patterson, G. (2007). The role of police officers in elementary and secondary schools: Implications for police-school social work collaboration. School Social Work Journal, 31(2), 82-99.

8 Reaves, B. (2010). Local police departments, 2007. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Studies, Office of Justice Program. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd07.pdf.

9 Weiler, S. C., & Cray, M. (2011). Police at school: A brief history and current status of school resource officers. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 84(4), 160-163.