by Sarah McGowan, TT Writer and Producer

Last week’s tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut is a heartbreaking reminder of our nation’s need to protect children where they should never have to fear danger – at school.

Now ranked as the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the time for appropriate response and effective solutions is again at the forefront of our national debate. Many will say that more law enforcement on school campuses is what’s needed (along with gun control) to create safer schools, but the data on school policing tells a much different story.

On many public school campuses across the United States, School Resource Officers (SROs) go on patrol – in middle school hallways, high school cafeterias and all points in between. The hope is that with positive points of contact, police offer presence will encourage safer school campuses.

At some school sites, this proves true – SROs are friendly, compassionate, creatively involved in the school community and mentors to youth. But at many others, SROs are expected to and do play the role of detached disciplinarian and enforcer, missing the critical opportunity to become one of the trusted adults on campus. Far too many have come to rely heavily on police intervention.

After a huge federal push to curb campus violence and prevent school shootings, legislators are now trying to figure out how best to address school safety and undo two decades of policy that has allowed for the criminalization of many behaviors typical to the boundary pushing and poor decision making of adolescence.

Newtown’s mass shooting comes on the heels of an important move by the U.S. Senate on December 12th to right what has become a very wrong course in the troubling rise of youth arrests. Under consideration is the widespread and federally supported use of school policing and reliance on enforcement, much at the expense of the many community-strengthening interventions that help create safer school environments.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” says Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based research organization that focuses on identifying effective programs and policies to enact justice reform.

“Part of the move toward SROs was at a time when local resources for things like school nurses, counselors and school psychologists became scarce,” Velázquez explains. “School administrators saw them as a chance to bring another adult on campus to deal with issues, but unfortunately SROs are not equipped to fill those roles.”

In the wake of tragedies like Newtown’s, she reminds us that many of the solutions we reactively scramble to find, often have profoundly adverse and wide-reaching consequences.

The immediate impact, says Velázquez, is that the focus on SROs marks “a movement towards policing rather than other services that could better help youth, especially those that are experiencing a variety of life issues – whether mental health, abuse and neglect, or the typical anxiety that accompanies the teen years.” It’s a model that reflects the support services and resources currently lacking throughout our communities as well.

The Justice Policy Institute’s 2011 report, “Education Under Arrest” examines the stark outcomes of the federally funded SRO program and routine police presence on campus.

As their data shows, the presence of school resource officers has increased the number of youth arrests on school campuses, most frighteningly for offenses that at one time were handled as in-house behavioral issues like possession of tobacco, tardiness to class, fighting, arguing with a teacher or even firing off a spitball. And while many of those arrested fortunately end up in diversion programs for first-time offenders, any referral to the juvenile justice system sets off a domino effect of negative consequences for the student, family, school and community at large. Dubbed the School-to-Prison Pipeline, this criminalization of petty offenses has effectively become a fast-track initiation into the justice system.

Though promoted to the public as additional support staff in the form of “counselors” and “mentors” to youth, on average SROs only receive three days of education and counseling training. And no matter how you dress them up, a police officer is always a police officer. As Velázquez points out, there’s a big conflict of interest at work when the person you are expected to confide in is the same person who could potentially arrest you for your missteps.

Affecting tens of thousands of youth each year, Velázquez warns “there’s a lot at stake,” and not just for those who are issued citations. In “Education Under Arrest” the Justice Policy Institute found that SROs are not achieving the results the federal money intended.

Fundamentally troubling to Velázquez is what the fear of police presence at school does to the teen-adult dynamic. She says it’s critical that teens be able to “work with caring adults to deal with conflicts in ways that are more appropriate to their age and development than just pushing them into the justice system.”

“You can easily create a negative environment for teachers,” she continues, “if students feel that they can be ratted out at any moment because the administration says, ‘this is how we handle things here.’ That kind of approach harms the whole trust relationship between students and teachers.”

The bottom line is that on many campuses, youth interpret this police presence as though they are potential criminals from the moment they walk into the school environment. They also get the message that the school doesn’t really care to find out why they are engaging in risk behaviors and poor decision-making.

When it comes to fighting in particular, a school’s reliance on police response often means “something as low level as a schoolyard fight with no injuries could become characterized as a violent offense (assault) as if committed by an adult,” she explains. (Indeed, the juvenile arrest rate for simple assault in 2009 – the last year that such data was analyzed by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – was more than twice the rate in 1980, which could arguably be attributed in large part to the boom of SRO presence).

And these punitive policies ironically fly in the face of what we now know to be true about the developmental stages of youth. Often lacking the sound decision-making skills that lead them into trouble in the first place, the juvenile justice system throws youth into a formalized process that offers little opportunity for practical learning or restorative justice, and seemingly ignores the steps critical to helping youth develop community responsibility.

According to Velázquez and her team of researchers, this blind spot in the system wields a heavy public health impact. For youth of color in depressed economic areas across the country who are disproportionately affected by these policies, “the collateral consequences of juvenile justice involvement are very serious.”

“We know that those who are funneled in to the system may be subjected to detention and the outcomes for them are far worse than those who are not subject to detention,” she says. “Increased risk of suicide and abuse of all kinds are just two of the consequences.”

And even for the youth whose cases are diverted or sealed, opportunities for education and viable employment later in life are affected. “Some colleges ask if they’ve ever been arrested or found guilty of a crime. Many kids don’t understand that juvenile justice adjudication isn’t the same as being found guilty of a crime.”

There is also the heavy price the community at large pays for police presence in schools. Youth who could have been treated informally but end up in juvenile justice system, says Velázquez, “multiplies the fiscal impact of the decision to have a police presence in schools.”

“Juvenile justice involvement means you pay now and you pay later,” she explains. Calculating the fiscal cost starts with whether somebody is incarcerated or not; youth confinement on average costs $240 per day (American Correctional Association, 2008).

Incarcerated youth also have a greater likelihood of dropping out of school and future juvenile and adult justice system involvement. “The cost of a youth not being able to transition successfully, both in terms for the community and the taxpayer, are significant. If you drop out of school, that’s a lifetime loss in terms of earning potential and therefore of income levels and your tax base,” she warns.

Quite simply, enforcement alone just doesn’t make the right dollars and sense, especially when you consider that the national average expenditure to educate a child in the public system is a paltry $29 per day.

Despite the millions spent on school policing, including salaries, training and implementation, little empirical evidence exists to show that these programs are effective in their current form. In a national study that surveyed over 1,100 police chiefs, researchers found that only rarely “do police departments or school districts develop means for assessing the effectiveness of SRO programs.”

On the school-wide level, by taking sanctions away from a school site, there’s a huge loss when it comes to peer opportunities to learn from behavior issues. Velázquez says if a SRO is present, the school is less likely to try other interventions like peer juries or mediation where other students stand to gain valuable insight both into the decision making process and the impact their actions have on their communities.

So rather than take a preventative approach, current school policing often allocates resources to treat the symptom and not the source of the problem. The end result is that schools become less inviting to youth and a place where they may be viewed as a criminal, rather than a young person learning from both good and bad decision-making. This kind of institutionalized stigma and consequent alienation in adolescence is arguably a factor in what has contributed to the instability and devastating violence of school shooters.

So after spending hundreds of millions in federal funds on school policing to avoid another Columbine, we keep learning the brutal lesson that where we truly and consistently fail is in the critical communication and cooperative strategies that build more connected, and thus safer, communities.

“You want kids to feel like they’re learning and growing – and learning from their mistakes,” says Velázquez. “Whether it’s dealing with bullying or victimization, we know there are more effective ways to reduce violence on campus through things like positive behavior intervention or social emotional learning that emphasizes positive changes,” explains Velázquez. She believes that by creating school-wide initiatives to better address and reduce behavior problems, the whole atmosphere of a school will improve.

As “Education Under Arrest” reports, “the safety of schools has more to do with connections to adults.” For this to be possible – whether it’s in the form of a SRO or another school community member, Velázquez says schools need to support and train their staff so they know how to effectively manage behavior and identify when to seek help, as well as properly utilize the school counselors and psychologists who are trained to deal with the challenging issues that adolescents face.

We need to understand why students are bringing weapons and illegal substances to school. We need to understand why kids are fighting, bullying one another and stealing from each other. And we need to recognize that the only way that’s going to happen is by bringing together the counselors, teachers, parents, and other adults – including SROs – involved in a student’s life to listen to our youth and hear their truths.

“By creating an environment that’s positive and providing training for staff so they are aware of how best to manage adolescence,” explains Velázquez, “you can create a safe environment where the kids will do better because they’re happier to be there.”

True safety doesn’t come from metal detectors, campuses on lockdown or more police presence. Students and the adults on campus alike feel safe when they are actively engaged with one another and together are building a connected community.


To learn more about the developmental needs of youth (see Introduction), strategies for creating safer, more cohesive communities (Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 8 ) and effective ways to talk to youth about the stress and pressures they face (Chapters 3, 7 and 9), BUY THE BOOK, Teen Truth: Why Youth Have Something to Hide. And be sure to read next month’s feature TT article about the critical role school counselors can and should play in the school safety equation.

To learn more about Tracy Velázquez and the important reform work being done at the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., visit


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[image courtesy of Flickr user stevendepolo]