The Evolving Role of Police in Schools

As the role of police in the community has been dynamic throughout history, school-based law enforcement officers have expanded their range of duties since they were first assigned to schools. Many school districts in Texas, and across the country, have assigned law enforcement officers to their campuses. However, not all school-based law enforcement officers have the same role, because police and educational administrators can establish their own set of expectations for what the officer will be responsible for. To understand the variety of duties of school-based law enforcement, it is important to understand how the role has changed over time and what factors have contributed to its evolution.

School-based law enforcement officers have expanded their range of duties...however, not all officers have the same role in schools

Roots in Crime Prevention and Education

The earliest school-based law enforcement were assigned to campuses primarily for the purposes of crime prevention. 7 During the 1950s in Flint, Michigan, the first school resource officer (SRO) program aimed to improve the safety and security of the school. Subsequent SRO programs in the 1960s and 1970s followed a similar model. The police sought to maintain order in the schools and bridge the gap between law enforcement and schools.1

The crime prevention duties of school law enforcement mirrored the role that police in the community had during this time period. Police from the 1950s through the 1960s followed a warrior-like approach to dealing with crime. They used their abilities as law enforcers to arrest the “bad guys” and patrol the city to deter others from committing crimes.3 Taking a zero-tolerance stance on crime, “broken windows” policing in the 1980s sought to address small disorder issues before they became larger crime problems. In a similar way, a law enforcement presence in the school was believed to deter student deviance and reduce crime and disorder on campus. The crime prevention role continued to be the exclusive role of school law enforcement into the 1980s.

Expanding from traditional crime prevention duties, many school-based law enforcement officers in the mid-1980s added an education duty to their repertoire. The national political climate during this time had focused significant attention towards waging the “War on Drugs.” Drug education programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) became popular across the country, but schools needed someone to teach these courses to youth. Police officers were suitable candidates to communicate the risks and negative consequences of drug use. For this reason, police were brought into the schools to deliver drug resistance curriculums, and educating students was another responsibility that law enforcement was now expected to perform. This addition was the second piece to the eventual “triad” of responsibilities that came next.

Community Policing, The Triad Model, and Beyond

Criticism of law enforcement practices in the community led to shifts in policing during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Due largely to ineffectiveness, emphasis reverted to crime prevention requiring that police immerse themselves into the communities they serve and use problem-solving techniques to deal with crime. Police needed to be trained to restore ties with the community and more officers were needed to fill the workload. In 1994, President Clinton pledged to put 100,000 cops on the street and the Community-Oriented Policing (COPS) office was created to execute the mission of community-oriented policing. It is believed that the increase of police in schools during the 1990s was a by-product of the community-oriented policing philosophy.7

The Triad Model of Policing

Police in the community were now being asked to expand their skillset to include duties such as helping citizens with casual order maintenance. In a similar way, school-based law enforcement were asked to implement another skill into their role: the mentor or informal counselor. As a mentor, school-based police act as caring adults that help students avoid negative behaviors and survive the challenges that families and communities face.9 This philosophy resembles what police were doing in the community to address the root causes of crime, rather than waiting to respond to it. The intersection of crime prevention/law enforcement, education, and mentoring became known as the “triad” model4 and persisted into the 2010s.

Not all school-based law enforcement officers have the same role, because police and educational administrators can establish their own set of expectations for what the officer will be responsible for.

Police departments in the community have a tendency to switch the focus of their efforts to accommodate new approaches in policing philosophy. What is interesting about the evolution of school-based law enforcement that is different than policing in the community, is that school-based police have maintained much of their roots from previous “eras.” For example in some places, minor forms of misconduct are dealt with formally in the hopes of inhibiting more serious problems in the future. This crime prevention approach echoes “broken windows” policing tactics discussed above. In terms of education, law enforcement officers were initially engaged in teaching student-focused programs such as DARE or Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). However police have increasingly been used during teacher and administrator in-service training to educate staff on safety practices and emergency response. In many ways, crime prevention and education remain present within the triad framework.

Role expansion has grown beyond the scope of enforcing the law, educating, and mentoring. The 2010s saw additional responsibilities of school-based law enforcement. One study asking officers about their duties found that many school-based law enforcement officers were also acting as surrogate parents and social workers. Examples of these types of behaviors included bringing clothes or school supplies to disadvantaged students or connecting students with other social services.8 While these duties are not well understood yet, it is clear that school-based police (in some places) are engaging in activities that are outside the bounds of the original triad model.

Important Considerations for School-Based Law Enforcement

It is clear that the role of school-based law enforcement can be extremely complex. From crime prevention responsibilities, to the triad model, and beyond, the range of duties of school-based law enforcement officers is expansive and growing. It is important that law enforcement officers receive proper training for school-based deployment. While some functions overlap well with those used in the community, some skills are unique to the school environment. Experts suggest that school-based law enforcement be trained in a wide range of youth-related topics2 and that school administrators be involved in choosing training content that suits the context of their school.5 The Texas legislature has supported this sentiment, requiring that officers assigned to large districts receive instruction covering topics such as child and adolescent development and psychology, positive behavioral interventions and supports, restorative justice techniques, de-escalation techniques, mental and behavioral health needs, and mental health crisis intervention. While it is understood that not all school-based law enforcement officers perform every possible duty explained above, it is important that all are trained in these capacities in case the expectation is introduced.

Communication is a critical ingredient to the successful implementation of school-based law enforcement.

Another critical ingredient to implementing school-based law enforcement is communication. School staff and law enforcement should be consistent in regards to what actions are expected in various circumstances. In some schools, police may serve only as law enforcers. At other schools, the role of the law enforcement officer may fit the triad model. Still, other schools may do something entirely different. Each school is unique, and the context of each campus will determine the most appropriate use of police (if used at all). Nonetheless, communicating expectations is crucial to success.

Visit the Texas School Safety Center School-Based Law Enforcement and Events pages to stay informed about training, information, and events related to school-based law enforcement.

References

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.

2Johnson, I. (1999). School violence: The effectiveness of a school resource officer program in a southern city. Journal of Criminal Justice, 27(2), 173–192.

3Kelling, G.L., & Coles, C.M. (1996). Fixing Broken Windows. New York, NY: Free Press.

4Kennedy, M. (2001). Teachers with a badge. Security and Safety, 4, 36-38.

5Lambert, R.D., & McGinty, D. (2002). Law enforcement officers in schools: Setting priorities. Journal of Educational Administration, 40(3), 257–273.

6Lawrence, R. (2007). School Crime And Juvenile Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

7McDaniel, J. (2001). School Resource Officers, What We Know, What We Think We Know, What We Need To Know. Report for the School Safety Strategic Planning Meeting, US Department of Justice.

8McKenna, J.M., Martinez-Prather, K., and 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. 1-24.

9National Association of School Resource Officers. (2012). To Protect and Educate: The School Resource Officer and the Prevention of Violence in Schools. Retrieved from: https://nasro.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/NASRO-To-Protect-and-Educate-nosecurity.pdf.