Opinion: Research Supports SROs in Elementary Schools

by | Oct 10, 2022

By Peter Rodgers

In response to comments made by some current School Committee members at a recent candidate forum hosted by East Greenwich News, I would like to further elaborate on the need for school resource officers at the elementary level. My blog posts on this topic, including a deeper dive into the research supporting SROs, can be found on my Town Council Campaign page: www.peter-rodgers.com/issues.

School Committee member Nicole Bucka stated that all of the research from the past 10 years, including a 2021 Brown University study, shows that SROs do not prevent school shootings. The study to which she referred, The Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing Across the U.S., is based on a limited amount of data covering about five years. Despite this narrow sample, the paper acknowledged benefits to having SROs, including reducing the incidence of some forms of violence within schools, such as physical attacks without a weapon. It also stated that expanding SROs programs appears to increase gun-related infractions, possibly due to increased detection and reporting activities of the police officer within the school building. The researchers interpreted the increase in detection of weapons, disciplinary responses, and arrests as negative outcomes. However, if students are committing dangerous offenses, wouldn’t it protect our school communities by discovering and acting on them before they become fatal?

While the study did show a disproportionate disciplinary record for minorities and students with disabilities, the researchers could not prove a causal effect between the addition of SROs and poor outcomes for these groups. It’s significant to examine the context in which this research took place. This study coincided with the call for the elimination of SROs in the wake of the Defund the Police movement. As a result of this nationwide phenomenon, many schools across the country did away with their SRO programs only to reinstate them later.

When considering the effectiveness of SROs, it is important to refer to research which used a greater sample size, such as the 2019 Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence (link here). In this study, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) looked at 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred at K-12 schools in the U.S. from 2008 to 2017. What the NTAC found is compelling. The time it takes for an SRO to actively respond to the threat is substantially shorter than in cases where law enforcement officers must respond from off site. In fact, SROs responded in a minute or less in 70 percent of the cases as opposed to 2 percent for responders coming from outside of the school. According to the NTAC, “Six of the attacks ended with law enforcement intervention, either by SROs or by local police who were already on campus. No attacks were ended by outside law enforcement agencies responding to the scene from off-campus.” Many children were protected from harm due to the quick action of SROs or other officers who were present when the attack occurred. They did not need to wait for a call to be made to police or while police traveled to the scene. 

School Committee member Allyson Powell stated at the forum that no one person can prevent school violence. I would ask her to consider the multi-layered approach necessary for school security. Security programs, in general, rely on a strategy of “defense in depth” meaning that there are several layers, barriers, or obstacles that a threat must penetrate, avoid, or subvert to accomplish their mission. Normally, these layers include technological solutions, physical barriers, as well as properly trained and equipped personnel as the last line of defense. Removing any one of the above layers introduces vulnerabilities into the system and makes it easier for people with ill-intent to perpetrate their heinous acts. Elementary schools are often soft targets because they are less likely to have SRO protection. And physical barriers within the school cannot stop an attacker who assaults children outside the school building. Since Ms. Bucka and Ms. Powell do not believe that SROs help prevent school violence, then why does our current School Committee support their use at the middle and high school levels?

Ms. Powell further suggested that SROs would serve no purpose at the elementary level. I ask stakeholders to consider the evidence that SROs can refer troubled children to social services early and before they become dangerous. According to the NTAC, people who committed acts of school violence often had emotional family turmoil dating back to their elementary school years. An SRO can play a vital role in observing children outside the classroom, before and after school, at recess, in the hallways, and at lunchtime. They are specially trained to note when students are experiencing difficulties. Sadly, young children who do not have a supportive family life are often the targets of bullies in school. In fact, “Most of the attackers in this study (80 percent) were bullied by their classmates. For more than half of the attackers, the bullying appeared to be of a persistent pattern which lasted for weeks, months, or years.” Bullying often begins when a child is young. 

Bullies often perpetrate their most hurtful behaviors when students are not under the watchful eye of teachers. Students being bullied are often too ashamed to report these incidents. With a lack of support at home, their parents are also less likely to know about or report these behaviors to administration. According to the NTAC, in more than half of the cases, the attacker’s parents were unaware that their child experienced bullying. In only 34 percent of cases where school violence occurred, a school official was aware that the attacker had experienced bullying. SROs will enhance the schools’ protection of students who experience bullying by offering another trusted adult to whom children can report abuse before they turn to violence. 

When contacted about adding SROs to East Greenwich elementary schools in June, Ms. Bucka shared the belief that addressing the social emotional concerns of EG students is the most effective method for preventing school violence. Certainly, mental health services are sorely needed amongst our youth, especially after the unintentional harm brought about by extended remote learning, but how can in-school services reach people who do not currently attend EG schools? According to the United States Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report K-12, Characteristics of School Shootings (2020), “The shooter in about half of school shootings was a student or former student; in the other half, the shooter had no relationship to the school, was a parent, teacher, or staff, or his or her relationship to the school was unknown” (https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-20-455.pdf). Therefore, in about half of all cases, schools could not have met the social emotional needs of the school shooters because they were not students.

At the forum, Ms. Bucka also argued that funding additional SROs would be wasteful. If I am elected to the Town Council, I will exhaust every possible source of outside funding, such as grants from the Community Oriented Policing Services in Schools program and Governor McKee’s offer to provide towns with $500K in expedited funding to improve school security. But even if we could not secure outside funding, the additional cost of adding four SROs would increase the average family’s property taxes by less than  $150 per year. I think most of our neighbors would be willing to forgo one cup of coffee each week to provide better security for our elementary students. If this expense would be too burdensome on East Greenwich families in light of growing inflation, I would propose that we begin by adding at least one SRO who can rotate through our elementary schools each day.

As a town councilor, I will use the experience gained from multiple deployments around the world in my 21 years as a submarine officer and my tenure as deputy commander of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which centered on ensuring the safety of the 5,000+ military and civilian employees, to inform my stance on issues vital to the safety and security of our community. If you find the research in favor of SROs at the elementary level compelling, I urge you to ask, what is the reason that our sitting School Committee members are reluctant to admit the value of this data? I respectfully recommend that our local leaders do what is necessary to better protect our youngest, most vulnerable population. 

Our district’s motto is “All Means All.” Let’s apply the same principle to school security as we do to other services we offer students. Elementary school students deserve equal protection to what we provide for our middle and high school students.

Peter Rodgers is a candidate for EG Town Council.

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October 10, 2022 10:27 pm

I’d like to personally thank you Peter for your concern and attention to this matter. In the day and age that we live in, it’s incomprehensible to me that anyone could think an SRO at every single school in the country isn’t imperative!! I have literally prayed out loud every single morning I’ve dropped my kids off since sandy hook, that they are kept safe and come home safely to me. No parent should have to fear dropping their kids off at school; especially when it’s a district known for its excellence and safety.
When I asked the TC last year about any plans in place for more school safety after the most recent shooting I was ignored by most. The one who did reply was only concerned in sharing her personally views on gun control. It was insulting and obnoxious to say the least. I can’t wait for you to be elected to finally have someone who is willing to listen to and work towards an issue that is on the heart of I’m sure many parents in this town. Thank you!!!

October 11, 2022 8:12 am

Peter, thank you 1000 times over for this and your first blog post. Both excellent reads on the merits of having SROs. What parent will say their child’s safety is not worth $150?!
I am appalled at Bucka and Powell who both opposed SROs with vigor at the forum. They do not represent me or my children.

October 11, 2022 8:57 am
Reply to  Kristine

Thank you again Peter for such an excellently written post. School safety and security should be on everyone’s minds and yet it’s very clear that there are some on the current committee that don’t agree. SRO’s should be in every school. Safety should be on every agenda. It’s naive to think that what has been happening in other schools couldn’t happen here. We need leaders in place that will move mountains to ensure our kids are safe while out of their parents arms.

October 11, 2022 12:26 pm

Well explained thoughts on a complex issue. SRO seem like a logical approach to keeping our children safe. I’m always surprised with arguments against securing the schools, such a basic measure, with everything that’s happened with school shootings. We wouldn’t want our homes to be unprotected, while our most precious assets are unprotected from outside forces daily.

October 11, 2022 2:52 pm

Peter, thank you for taking a special interest in this issue. I believe your proactive leadership response would be just what this community needs.

October 11, 2022 5:13 pm

Thank you for addressing this important issue. It’s about time that we consider SROs in every school. This is a critical step to a multi layer approach to prevent school violence.

October 11, 2022 7:13 pm

What is the catalyst for this? Someone read a Brown University Study? Can these school committee members provide ANY evidence that EG students have a problem with SRO’s? Do they feel less safe? Are they less safe? Have complaints been filed? Any data? Never in my 26 years as public educator have I ever gotten the impression that a single student, faculty member or parent had an issue having a resource officer in the building. There is plenty of evidence showing school shootings occur in places with and without SRO’s but I think it’s far more pragmatic to suggest that SROs are the most effective deterrent..in most cases. The inverse argument would be just plain ridiculous.

As both a taxpayer and parent I prefer my school committee members provide evidence germane to our district.

October 11, 2022 10:33 pm

Thank you to Peter for this well thought out and reasoned piece. It surprises me that some people would have issue with adding SRO’s to our elementary schools as part of a multi layered approach to safety. To be honest, I don’t understand the opposition. It’s not as though they act as correction officers guarding a prison…which is exactly the impression one SC member seemingly had when she equated protecting children with criminalizing them. Perhaps she’s not clear on what exactly SRO’s do?

Also, SRO’s are already present in the Middle School/HS. So only those kids are worthy of protection? Seems like a no brainer to me to add them to the elementary schools as well.

The town would be lucky to have Peter on TC.

Rebecca Karb
Rebecca Karb
October 12, 2022 11:58 am

This is a sadly flawed and misleading opinion. The collective research on SROs (there have been MANY studies, not just the ONE, written by law enforcement, that is cited above) has shown:

– SROs do not improve school safety or reduce school violence (conclusion of a systematic review of FORTY studies)
– Students feel less safe, and report more fear and anxiety, at schools with SROs.
– The presence of SROs leads to more expulsions and suspensions, especially for Black students (the racial disparities in suspensions and detention INCREASE in schools with SROs).
– Schools with SROs have higher rates of arrests and court referrals for trivial issues. Since serious crime in schools is thankfully relatively rare, what ends up happening is a “mission creep” where SROs become involved in intervening in and criminalizing minor school infarctions (like cell phone use).

This paradigm of school safety that centers law enforcement is old, tired, and most importantly not evidence-based.
We have to think deeply about the kind of environment we want to create for our developing children. Do we really want schools to feel like policed spaces with punishment and regulation being the driving culture? Or do we want schools to be spaces of support and trust, where students feel safe to open up to the adults around them?

So what works? INVESTING IN SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT! Investing in mental health providers, strengthening teacher-student relationships, and fostering a *positive* school climate that makes students feel supported, embraces diversity and difference, and encourages respect.

Thank goodness we have kind and reasonable folks like Nicole Bucka, Alyson Powell, and Clare Cecil-Karb running for School Committee— folks who are committed to creating safe schools through evidence-based policies.

October 13, 2022 11:22 am

Why are government agencies only authoritative when it comes to the CDC/NIH?

Mr. Rodgers referred to multiple sources. In his LTE, he referenced the US Secret Service report to the Department of Justice as well as research from the Government Accountability Office.

By the way, why does Ms. Bucka mistrust government agencies, except — the CDC?

In his blog posts, Rodgers cited researchers from Jon Jay College of Criminal Justice, Michigan State, USC, etc. He provided links to 10 news organizations that described examples of SROs averting school violence. Are we really concerned that our SROs will arrest elementary school children for using cell phones?

We even employ them in our middle and high school — under the leadership of Ms. Bucka and Ms. Powell? The common sense Democrats in our General Assembly, including Evan Shanley, agree that school security depends on a multi-faceted approach. Mr. Rodgers stated that he supports enhancing mental health supports in schools but explained that he is also concerned about the 50% of cases where school shooters were NOT students.

And if SROs are so harmful, why do all the private schools have not only security officers, but cameras, gates and swipe cards? I’ll tell why – because it is not only reasonable but basic common sense to protect our children.

Eugene Quinn
October 16, 2022 9:01 am

Mr Rodgers: I’m responding to your direct queston to the School Committee asking why we have not recommended the elimination of SROs at the middle and high schools. Superintendent Alexis Meyer commissioned, and the school committee approved funding for, a comprehensive review of district security by a team of qualified security professionals headed, as it turned out, by an EGHS alum. It was tasked with identifying vulnerabilities and recommending ways to remedy them. For obvious reasons, the results cannot be made public, but I can say that their recommendations included neither eliminating the existing SROs nor adding them at elementary schools. I reviewed the study you cited from the viewpoint of a professional statistician and while it does not contain any methodological errors, it does not appear to be peer reviewed and the sample size is too small to have enough statistical power to be a convincing argument in favor of modifying the recommendations we have, especially if significant costs are involved. I take my oversight responsibilities seriously and those responsibilities include seeing, to the best of my ability, that taxpayer dollars are spend prudently. To suggest that I do not care about the safety of our students and staff if I don’t agree with your proposal is a false equivalence.

peter rodgers
peter rodgers
October 18, 2022 10:57 pm
Reply to  Eugene Quinn

Dr. Quinn, I agree that the specifics of any threat assessment should not be discussed publicly, but I think it would be helpful for parents to know that xx% of the improvements or recommendations have been implemented or will be implemented by the end of the current school year. That way they will know that the Town Council and School Committee are actively making progress in improving the safety and security of our schools without publicizing the details of the steps being taken.

As far as the GAO study, I am sure that you are aware that government research agencies do not normally publish in academic journals and thus do not undergo traditional peer review. Instead, federal agencies have their own, strict review process which closely mirrors the methods followed by peer reviewed journals. Additionally, your colleague has referenced the other major government reference I cited (from the Secret Service’s NTAC) in her own writings in the past, so I fail to see how the lack of peer review invalidates the information or conclusions in a government publication. Moreover, I would encourage you to review the other document (a non-peer reviewed policy brief from a UCONN Doctoral Candidate) that your colleague frequently references in her public writings and comments and examine the citations in the paragraph she seems to primarily focus on (“SROs Do Not Guarantee Physical Safety” – the statement itself being a statistical impossibility). That section of the brief cites a clearly partisan opinion website, two op-eds, and one source listed as “Name Redacted & Name Redacted, 2018.” As a long-time professor, I’m sure that you would have the same reaction to such “sources” being cited as I did when I was teaching Master’s students.

Regarding the statistical significance of the data in the GAO report, I understand that it is difficult to draw academic conclusions from a small data set. The report identified 318 school shootings from 2009-2019. Since there are approximately 131,000 schools in the U.S., that yields an incidence of 24.3 school shootings per 100,000 schools per year over the 10-year period. Examining the incidence of another horrific tragedy, airline hijackings, shows world-wide rates of 0.007 per 100,000 flights per year for the years 2002-2021 and 0.17 per 100,000 flights per year for data covering 1980-2000. The federal government has spent billions of dollars to reduce the incidence of hijackings (to include placing armed Air Marshals on flights) even though they are several thousand times less likely to occur than a school shooting. In the Submarine Force we conduct Operational Risk Management on every mission or exercise the boat is engaged in. We assess the likelihood of an untoward event and the severity of the consequences of that event. Even though the likelihood of a failure might be assessed as infinitesimally small, if the consequence is catastrophic, we put plans, policies, and procedures in place to mitigate the risk. I believe that we should take the same approach to school safety because I don’t think that 24.3 per 100,000 per year is statistically insignificant when compared to the rate of incidence for airline hijackings.

Finally, Dr. Quinn, I respect your data-focused approach to this topic and, at no point in my written or spoken comments have I said or implied that you and your colleagues do not care about East Greenwich’s children. I firmly believe that you and all the other candidates for School Committee sincerely want what is best for our students. I only wanted to offer my perspective which is based on years of experience dealing with security.

Concern parent
Concern parent
October 16, 2022 3:41 pm

I think perhaps this DOJ study will help regarding the issue of SRO’s. https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-w0891-pub.pdf
I like this study because I don’t think it pushes an agenda like some of the studies people who oppose SROs have quoted. As a parent, I for one would feel comfortable with an SRO in every school. To have someone say that it is “too costly” doesn’t sit well with me – it is as if you are putting a dollar figure on a child or teachers life. I also support better mental health access and supports but the effectiveness of that will take a while to see and will not help if a school shooter shows up at my child’s school tomorrow.

October 19, 2022 5:10 pm

Thank you Peter for your concern and advocacy. I fully support the presence of SRO’s in our schools. I am stopping short of citing studies and journals because as we have seen, there is a study in support for every study in opposition. For me it comes down to the safety of our students. I have a difficult time swallowing positions of those who oppose the presence of SRO’s based upon inconclusive evidence. Why, when we truly don’t have the answers, do we continue to place our children in any potential harm. What we do know is that SRO’s bridge the gap. SRO’s act in roles outside of the scope of law enforcement. They are mentors, counselors, and educators. Not to mention a direct line to law enforcement when and if needed. SRO’s seek out at risk students and know full well the impacts of bullying and the affects on mental health. Furthermore they know the school climate. Current strategies are inadequate and too late in many schools. It is essential that interventions occur at the earliest stages in order to prevent schools tragedies. Placing these officers in our elementary schools is a start. It is a proactive start. I prefer that over a roll of the dice.


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