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Do School Resource Officers Prevent School Shootings?

at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, 1600 Man O War Blvd., in Lexington, Ky., Friday, May 31, 2019.
Charles Bertram
at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, 1600 Man O War Blvd., in Lexington, Ky., Friday, May 31, 2019.

Students hop off buses and out of their parents’ cars and pour into Marion C. Moore School in Louisville on the first day of class. 

“This way my dear, just follow the crowd. How are you this morning?” Family Resource Coordinator Petrina Thompson greets students.

She’s one of many school staff welcoming students. But the school resource officer, a sworn police officer who has served in the school, is notably missing from the scene — here, and at all JCPS middle and high schools. 

Over the summer, the Louisville Metro Police Department pulled its 17 officers who had served in schools, due to city budget cuts. Then in a split vote — made possible by a vacant seat — the JCPS school board decided not to renew the contracts of its remaining 11 officers. That’s causing mixed opinions in Louisville. Brian Bariga heard the news as he was dropping off his daughter.

“No schools are gonna have cops now or anything?” Bariga asked, awestruck. “So, [are] teachers allowed to carry now? No? Wow, this is crazy.”

Others are for the move and some are just a little uneasy.

“It makes me feel more safe knowing there was a police officer on staff,” said Tiffany Redmon, who dropped off her nephew at Moore. 

“I feel that it’s definitely a safety issue for the children, being that there are more school shootings now more than ever.” 

School shootings are actually rare, and technically they’re becoming less frequent, but horrific rampage style shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida scare any parent. But do SROs make schools safer in the event of a school shooting?

Do SROs Make Schools Safer? Answers From Research

That's kind of the million dollar question,” said Tom Mowen, a criminal justice researcher at Bowling Green State University who studies school resource officers. “Specifically about school shootings, we don't know a whole lot.”

Mowen says the general body of research on SROs is robust, but when it comes to school shootings, that aspect is less studied because shootings are uncommon.

But it’s an area he’s digging into. Mowen is currently studying whether SROs lower deaths or injuries when a school shooting happens. His paper is not yet published while it goes under peer review, but the results don’t look good for SROs. And he says one thing is clear: 

“For someone to suggest that SROs prevent school shootings is absolutely unfounded in in terms of science. There's no support for that statement at all,” Mowen said. 

He said that’s important for policymakers to know when they decide how to address school shootings.

“The knee jerk reaction is to put police in schools, and yet we don't question whether or not that is achieving our goal,” Mowen said.

Meanwhile, he said there's a mounting body of evidence that shows that SROs are associated with a long list of negative outcomes —like some students feeling less safe, or instances of students being tasered and increases in student arrests for discipline issues that used to be dealt with in school. Certainly some SROs have great relationships with students, and have done heroic things to protect kids, but studies show that’s not the whole picture for every student. 

Board Member Corrie Shull Explains His Vote

School board members have done their research too.

“We definitely care about the safety of all students, but we also recognize that depending on the community that you come from, depending on your ethnicity, your engagement with police may be different,” said JCPS board member Corrie Shull, who voted against renewing the SRO contracts.

Shull points to research and local data from JCPS that show disproportionate rates of arrest of minority students when SROs are present. 

“...Especially for black youth, and LGBTQ youth, and special needs youth. Those children deserve to be comfortable in school,” Shull said.

In the 2017-2018 school year, of the 261 JCPS students who were arrested, 199 were black, according to data collected by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Shull said that as a father of two young kids, he’s concerned about shootings too, but he doesn’t think renewing those contracts with local police was the answer.

“No one should work with our students that are not ultimately accountable to the school board and the superintendent,” Shull said.

Superintendent Pollio has presented plans for the district to create a security force that answers directly to the district. But the first step in a proposal to get up to 40 SROs in the district was to renew those contracts. Shull says he felt that was a piecemeal effort. And he says when he voted, he wasn’t just thinking about shootings, he was thinking about students day to day. 

Shull says he’s fielded lots of calls from parents about his vote. He thinks it’s notable that as a black preacher who is well-connected in the African-American community, he hasn’t heard from a single black family who was against his vote, nor from the parents of a LGBT student or a student with disabilities.

“Having LMPD out of the schools is a win for me, I would rather them be walking my neighborhood,” said Cassia Herron — the mother of two middle schoolers — who is black and lives in Smoketown.

What Do Students Think?

The school district still has security measures. Many schools, including Moore have security guards. And the district is repurposing night security guards to patrol outside schools during the day. Ben Fisher, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville says that might be a good idea.

“One principal I spoke with said even if they lost their SRO, if they had their patrol car parked out front, they would feel good, in terms of a deterrent effect,” Fisher said.

The students at Marion C. Moore seemed unsure, but less concerned than parents. Students Neiecy Webster and Karma Mason say they think security guards will be enough to protect the school’s two thousand students.

“We might need a lot of security, because there’s a lot of fights. But I think we should be good though,” Neiecy said, turning to Karma. “What do you think?”

“I think we should be fine without the police,” Karma replied.

Superintendent Pollio is stillpursuing plans to develop a specially trained security force who will report directly to the district. A district spokeswoman says those plans may materialize this school year.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.