No police in schools?

Updated on 06/09/2022

The Mano a Mano Family Center supports the decision made in 2021 by the Superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS), Christy Perry, to not renew the contracts of school resource officers (SROs) assigned to several area schools.

We continue to support that decision as one that protects the wellbeing and dignity of our youth and children, for the following reasons:

What we paid for

For nearly 30 years, SKPS contracted with law enforcement agencies to have several SROs placed at area schools. By the time the decision was taken to permanently end the program (in 2021), SKPS was spending about $1 million annually on these contracts. According to The Statesman Journal article, “These costs covered 11 officers with both Keizer and Salem police departments, as well as the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, each covering the schools that fall within their agency’s jurisdiction.”

High Schools generally had an SRO assigned to each one; middle schools, generally, also had an SRO assigned to each school. However, NO elementary school ever had an SRO assigned to them. Officers were available to offer basic support, i.e., threat response, child protective investigations, and counsel regarding criminal behavior.

What we thought we were getting for our money was an SRO. According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO),

The school resource officer (SRO) is a carefully selected, specifically trained, and properly equipped full-time law enforcement officer with sworn law enforcement authority, trained in school-based law enforcement and crisis response, assigned by the employing law enforcement agency to work in the school using community-oriented policing concepts.”

National Association of School Resource Officers; FAQ: “What is a school resource officer?”

Unlike other police officers, according to NASRO, SROs perform three main functions,

NASRO considers it a best practice to use a “triad concept” to define the three main roles of school resource officers: educator (i.e. guest lecturer), informal counselor/mentor, and law enforcement officer.”

National Association of School Resource Officers; FAQ: “What are appropriate roles of school resource officers?”

This concept was, in theory, the training and education framework for SROs in Salem-Keizer. For example, according to the Salem Police Department (SPD), the SROs they employed were required to complete a 40-hour training presented by NASRO. (Page 49). That is to say, the law enforcement agencies understood well what they were being paid for and what they were supposed to deliver. And that was supposed to be SROs, not regular police officers.

SROs were contracted under intergovernmental agreements between Salem-Keizer School District 24J and various law enforcement agencies. These agreements specified the intentions and expectations of both parties. Among other things, the agreement stated that the SROs were intended to adhere to the “triad concept” and,

…SROs will be encouraged to avoid pursuing non-SRO related trainings (unless required to maintain State certification) or non-SRO related police specialties during student contact time. (Non-SRO police training as examples are: SWAT, Tactical Negotiation Team [TNT], Emergency Vehicle Operation Course [EVOC], defensive tactics, and firearms instruction.) Emergency call-outs shall not activate this clause.”

Intergovernmental Agreement, A2012-102, between City of Salem and Salem-Keizer School District 24J; page 7

Text of Intergovernmental Agreement
SROs should avoid non-SRO training and specialties

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Not getting what we paid for

However, the reality was different. For many years, Salem SROs acted in a manner that went against standing intergovernmental agreements and nationally established guidelines for their specialty.

On April 2021, a group of national experts on public safety presented their findings to the City Council of the City of Salem, from an assessment of the policies, procedures and operations of the City of Salem Police Department.

Among their many recommendations, they encouraged the SPD,

Consider eliminating the SRO program with the Salem-Keizer School District until the SPD’s staffing needs are addressed.”

Page 49, SRO

That assessment found that the Salem SROs, the main component of the SRO force, appeared not to follow intergovernmental agreements and guidelines established by national experts. In other words, they were regular police officers, not highly trained and focused SROs. For example,

…Some SROs had other collateral assignments, such as with the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, which required regular training that often took them away from being available to the schools.”.

Page 47, SRO

Even though the intergovernmental agreement explicitly encouraged them not to do that (see the previous section).

…In interviews with school district leaders and current SROs, interviewees estimated SROs spent more than 40 percent of their time on collateral investigative work, which required them to be in their office writing or making phone calls.…”

Page 47, SRO

That is, about half the time the SROs were not available to serve two of the three main roles that distinguish SROs from regular police officers.

And, finally, that their main function was criminal investigations and law enforcement in schools, resulted in another problem that took away much more legitimacy from the program,

…[the fact that the] SRO is so intertwined with juvenile investigations adds an inherent conflict: some see them primarily as enforcers or law enforcement, rather than representing the triad model of an SRO who is a mentor, an educator and a law enforcement officer”.

Page 47, SRO

Quote from SPD Assessment
Factors that inhibited the effectiveness of SROs in SKPS

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Millions of dollars spent on something of lesser quality

It is difficult to estimate with certainty how much money was spent on something that was really not an SRO program. The Salem and Keizer community believed that highly trained SROs were being paid to be mentors and role models for students, all the while also protecting their assigned school full time, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.

And, for as much as many people still believe this is how things worked, in actuality, this just was not reality.

Mano a Mano is not aware of evidence showing how long SROs were given non-SRO assignments and allowed to focus nearly half of their time on non-SRO duties. However, judging by testimony from alumni and educators, this situation could have lasted for a minimum of five years, and even more than 10 years.

If so, the amount spent on a different and substandard model may have exceeded $10 million.

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SROS were often not available to their schools

This was mentioned previously, but it deserves the emphasis:

Intergovernmental agreements stipulated that SROs would serve on a full-time basis. But of the 40 hours a week they were required to be in their schools, connecting with students and supporting teachers, Salem’s SROs were absent about 16 to 20 hours a week. They were engaged in SWAT drills or (necessary) criminal investigations. Regardless of the reason, the fact is they didn’t do what an SRO is supposed to do.

Many people today think that the SRO officers in Salem-Keizer were always guarding the school to which they were assigned, but the reality was different, according to the testimony of school district officers, SRO police officers, and corroborated by the testimony of SKPS teachers, parents, students and alumni.

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Youth and Parents had few if any rights

Parents and Youth had few rights under the SRO program

According to intergovernmental agreements, the SROs had the exclusive right to decide whom to inform about their investigations, and when to inform them. There was nothing that required them to include or inform parents, legal guardians, school administrators, etc.

The agreement between Salem-Keizer School District 24J and law enforcement agencies said that,

  • Parental or legal guardian consent was not required for the SRO or investigating officer to interrogate (“interview”) a student regarding a criminal matter.
  • The SRO or investigating officer should (but did not have to) contact the school principal…to conduct an investigation within the school, unless such information would jeopardize the investigation.
  • The SRO or investigating officer had the option of, at their discretion, attempting to notify the student’s parents or legal guardians of the ongoing investigation.
  • A school principal or other school personnel may be present during the interrogation (“interview”) of a student, only with the consent of the SRO or investigating officer.

The intergovernmental agreement created a legal framework where the Salem-Keizer School District 24J completely disassociated itself from any incident, as soon as the SRO started an investigation. In other words, the school your child goes to not only would not take any responsibility, they also knew NOTHING about what the SRO did, unless they (or the juvenile department) decided to inform them.

No doubt some may be thinking, What’s the problem?

Well, just that in theory, an underage student could be questioned and arrested for a crime without the knowledge of the school principal, attorneys, parents or guardians. And the agreement removed any right for anyone to file complaints against the school or the law enforcement agency.

In practice, and according to alumni testimony, it was routine for an underage student to be asked to understand and protect their civil rights, on their own, before a police officer, during a criminal investigation, without the support or knowledge of their parents, legal guardians, attorneys. advocates, or of any other adult.

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Impact of not having sros in skps

The natural questions many had when considering canceling the SRO contracts was whether doing so would impact crisis response in schools, or if there would be an increase in crime or violence in schools.

Regarding the first issue, the absence of SROs does not appear to have affected the speed or effectiveness with which law enforcement agencies respond to incidents in or around schools.

The second question is more difficult to answer, but the answer is still “no”.

As we will explain in the next section, almost 30 years later, there is no evidence that SROs helped reduce, eliminate, or prevent violence or crime nationally or in Salem-Keizer schools, based on qualitative and quantitative data. In fact, there is national evidence that their presence can have negative effects, primarily on students of color, with disabilities, or LGBTQ+.

Although it is clear that there is an alarming increase in school violence nationally, let us remember that we are coming out of an extremely traumatic two-year period. The impact on the emotional well-being of adults, youth and children will not be clear to us for many years.

An objective analysis of the qualitative and quantitative evidence leads us to the conclusion that, at this time, the simplest explanation for the increases in fighting, etc., is the shared trauma that our communities have suffered, and not the absence of SROs.

After all, most of the SROs at Salem-Keizer didn’t do their SRO job nearly half the time.

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SROs do not prevent violence or crime at schools

In 2018, NASRO estimated that there were as many as 20,000 SRO police officers covering about 30 percent of the nation’s schools. The numbers grew significantly after the Columbine massacre in 1999.

Thirty years after the beginning of the wave of school massacres, there still is no evidence that police or armed people make schools safer. In fact, according to Marc Schindler, director of the Justice Policy Institute,

…the data really shows otherwise — that this is largely a failed approach in devoting a significant amount of resources but not getting the outcome in school safety that we are all looking for.”

NPR; All Things Considered; “Do Police Officers In Schools Really Make Them Safer?”

In Parkland, Florida, for example, the SRO assigned to the school did not confront the attacker and took shelter outside the school while people died inside. In Uvalde, Texas, we saw something similar: the SRO assigned to Robb Elementary School was not there, and the large number of police officers surrounding the school failed to stop the killer before he could kill 19 people (according to current information).

In fact, plenty of research,

…suggest that students of color could be severely disadvantaged if more guns were brought into schools.

Armed presence in schools can also have academic ramifications for students of color.

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The School-To-Prison Pipeline is real

The School-to-Prison Pipeline refers to education and public safety policies that push students into the criminal justice system, directly and indirectly.

The presence of SROs or zero tolerance policies are direct examples where schools can push students toward criminal charges and incarceration.

However, the School-to-Prison Pipeline exists primarily because of the norms, practices, and policies that monitor, discipline, and criminalize (i.e., treat as criminals) primarily youth of color, youth with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students.

Research published in 2021, found evidence that, “that there is, in fact, a school-to-prison pipeline.”

The researchers found that “the negative impacts from strict disciplinary environments are largest for minorities and males, suggesting that suspension policies expand preexisting gaps in educational attainment and incarceration.”

…any effort to maintain safe and orderly school climates must take into account the clear and negative consequences of exclusionary discipline practices for young students, and especially young students of color, which last well into adulthood.”

Proving the School-To-Prison Pipeline

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Students of color are policed more than whites

According to research, Black students in this country attend schools that tend to have more security staff than mental health staff. And, based on observations from the Latino community, the same is likely for those students.

In other words, students of color are often regarded as potential disrupters, and policed accordingly as potential criminals, instead of offering them support as people who may be suffering from multiple traumas.

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Armed presence in school may have negative effects in academic achievement for students of color

According to national research, armed presence on school campus has been associated with an increase in middle school discipline rates, a decrease in high school graduation rates, and a decrease in college enrollment.

Some studies have also documented lower academic achievement among Black males in schools where there was an increase in an armed presence, such as SROs, on campus.

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re-Imagine school discipline

We simply cannot keep doing the same thing we’ve done over the past 30 years, and expect a different result. Some ideas to consider include,

  • Continue saying no to SROs or any police force on school campuses.
  • Ensure that the most complex schools have the social-emotional supports that their students require, and that they do not become prison-like.
    • for example, more counselors, more socioemotional supports, and more staff trained in restorative justice practices than security guards
      • a complex school is a school with a large student body, high discipline rates (up to and including suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to juvenile department), a diverse student body or one, etc.
  • Support teachers so they can develop/maintain real connections with their students
    • Reduce class size in the most complex schools
    • Reduce the number of required standardized tests to help students actually focus on learning
    • Increase the number of teachers, particularly teachers of color
  • Limit the use of disciplinary practices to clear, specific and logical cases
    • “Enumerate specific prohibited behaviors for students.”
    • “Ensure that specific prohibited behaviors are distinguishable from developmentally appropriate child and adolescent behavior.” And also from cultural or religious practices.
      • for example, criminalizing the wearing of the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe (just because some gang members wear it) will result in the criminalization of innocent people, simply because of their religion.)
    • Establish where and when the policy applies (e.g., during school hours, during school activities, etc.).
    • Account for students’ knowledge or intent of wrongdoing.
    • Account for the outcome of students’ behavior
      • That is, consider a consequence for a prohibited behavior that matches the actual impact or harm caused by the student’s behavior; rather than having mandatory minimum punishments for prohibited behaviors.

To make it clear, “Restorative Justice” is a school practice that,

…helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences.

The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary.

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

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In the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver discusses the push for more police in schools and whether they are the answer to our school safety issues, or a new problem altogether.


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