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Gov. Tim Walz is weighing whether to call a special session to address law enforcement concerns over a recently passed ban on putting students in chokeholds and other extreme forms of physical restraint.
Republican lawmakers are urging Walz to act, claiming that the provision effectively outlaws all forms of physical force by police officers in schools, despite an opinion from Attorney General Keith Ellison stating that “reasonable” force can still be used to prevent injury or death. Several police departments across the state have announced they will not place officers in schools until they get clarification on the new law.
Lurking beneath the debate over how much force cops should use on kids is an even more fundamental question: Do police officers (known as school resource officers, or SROs) in schools make students safer?
A forthcoming paper by researchers at the State University of New York and the RAND Corporation explores this question using the best available data to date. They find evidence that the presence of an SRO leads to a reduction in some violent incidents at school.
But that relatively modest reduction comes at a steep cost: a massive increase in suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal justice system, actions that can be ruinous to students’ lives.
Teasing out the effects of school resource officers is a tricky problem. In Minnesota, for instance, they’re present in about 30% of all public schools. Districts that opt to employ those officers may be different in fundamental ways from districts that don’t — they may have more problems with poverty or violence, for instance. Simply looking at student outcomes in SRO schools versus non-SRO schools is likely to confuse correlation with causation.
The SUNY/RAND study sidesteps this problem by way of a clever natural experiment. Police departments across the country can apply for federal funding to pay for putting officers in specific schools. Some of those applications are successful while others aren’t. By examining similar schools on either side of the funding cutoff, the researchers were able to eliminate the effects of confounders like demographics and poverty.
What was left, in isolation, was an estimate of how a new SRO program changed a school.
For a hypothetical school of 1,000 students, hiring an SRO leads to six fewer violent in-school incidents – fights, robberies and threats of violence. That works out to about a 30% decline.
That reduction also comes with a steep increase in severe disciplinary actions against students. There are 24 additional suspensions, one or two more expulsions, and two more referrals to the criminal justice system. Those are increases of up to 90% over the baseline level.
“The kids suspended, expelled, or arrested are far less likely to graduate and more likely to have further run-ins with the criminal justice system,” as the authors write in a recent opinion piece.
That may seem like the system working as intended by removing problematic students from the school environment. But Lucy Sorensen, the lead author of the study, cautions that that’s not necessarily the case. The steep rise in suspensions is particularly concerning, she said, because those typically arise from any number of minor infractions that shouldn’t fall under an SRO’s purview.
“SROs ideally should not get involved in minor disciplinary matters with students,” she said via email. “They are only supposed to deal with law enforcement related to serious delinquency and crimes. However, the fact that they increase discipline for minor incidents means that they are contributing to a more punitive school climate overall and not fulfilling appropriate roles and responsibilities.”
She also notes a lack of evidence in the existing literature that suspending or expelling problem students has any beneficial effect on other pupils.
The students suspended or expelled, on the other hand, face real, well-documented threats to their own future stability. They lose classroom time, become more likely to drop out, and are more likely to face a lifetime of criminal justice system involvement — the so-called school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects Black students.
Sorensen says that ultimately, she does not believe the reduction of violence SROs bring is worth the steep cost of increased disciplinary consequences for students.
“I do not think that SROs are particularly sound investments from either a cost-benefit perspective or an equity perspective,” she said. “There are alternative school safety approaches out there, such as restorative justice practices or mental health supports, that do not produce as many negative spillovers onto students.”
But discussion of those sorts of tradeoffs has, so far, been lacking in the debate over SROs and physical restraints in Minnesota schools.
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