School Resource Officer programs have gained in popularity over the past 40 years, with their origin traced as far back as the 1950s and ’60s. I first wrote about and advocated for an SRO program in Frederick County schools in the early ’80s. While with the sheriff’s office in the early ’90s, I made an unsuccessful attempt to secure funding for an SRO program, and later, I was with the Department of Justice COPS Office where we funded SRO positions and provided training to SROs and school administrators nationwide.
I have been a proponent of and written in support of SROs for over four decades now, but realize it is time to take an objective look at these programs to see if they are actually accomplishing what we want. Particularly during the evolution of the community policing philosophy, the role of the SRO was to build relationships with students, teachers, school administrators and parents to work in collaboration to solve problems in and around schools.
As police departments moved to get officers out of their cars and on foot and bike patrols and incorporate other ways to increase positive interaction between police and community members, it was believed that constructive officer interactions with students in schools could bring about lasting positive relationships. The role of the SRO was not that of enforcer but that of a resource to be drawn on to assist in mentoring, informal counseling, team teaching, identification of at-risk students to be appropriately referred and other positive relationship-building activities.
Although the SRO is a sworn law enforcement officer and can be called on to provide security and enforcement measures, that was not intended to be their primary function. In the wake of 9/11 and a rash of school shootings, this seems to have changed with the role of disciplinarian and enforcer gaining prominence.
SROs should not be an arm of a school’s disciplinary apparatus, a function better left to school administrators. Involving the SRO in a school’s routine disciplinary function can inhibit efforts at building a trusting relationship with students and contribute to invoking the juvenile justice system when a school’s administrative remedies could provide a better outcome.
In recent years, we have begun to see evidence that SROs are taking on more of an enforcer role and their increased involvement in the school’s disciplinary process may be contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline that has a disparate impact on minority students. Nationally, regionally and now in Frederick County we have seen a disproportionate number of Black students arrested in our schools. During the 2017-2018 school year, 12 percent of the county’s student population was Black, while it represented 43 percent of school-based arrests. Students with disabilities were 11 percent of the student population and represented 23 percent of school-based arrests.
We have seen demands for the elimination of SRO programs nationally and in nearby Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Here in Frederick County, both proponents and opponents of SROs have presented compelling stories in support of their positions.
Anecdotal stories are useful and should not be ignored, but decisions to keep, modify or abandon SRO programs must be based on sound research and reliable data. It is time for a comprehensive, objective examination of Frederick Country’s SRO program and a determination as to whether it is accomplishing what we want it to.
Karl Bickel, formerly second in command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and former assistant professor of criminal justice is retired from the U.S. Department of Justice and writes from Monrovia. He can be reached at [email protected]