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.