By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
school-to-prison-pipelineEarlier today, the House Education Committee’s Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee considered a bill that would mandate the deployment of a school resource officer (SRO) in every Virginia elementary and secondary school, removing local school leaders’ ability to make their own decisions about how best to ensure safety.  The good news – it was sent to the Appropriations Committee, where the bill’s steep price tag means that it will likely fail.  The bad news – the subcommittee failed to hold a serious discussion on the reasons why this bill is a bad idea for Virginia’s public school children.
Had the subcommittee allowed testimony, here’s what we would have said:
  • We must focus on preventing violence, not responding to it.  As the University of Virginia Curry School of Education found, Virginia “[s]chools are not dangerous places. . . . In fact, very few violent crimes take place at school.  From the standpoint of violent crime, students are safer at school than at home.  Moreover, schools have become even safer during the past decade . . . .”   To make our schools safer, we must focus on evidence-based programs like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which has been shown to improve student behavior and create a more positive school environment.
  •  School safety decisions should be based on objective evidence and local needs.  There is no credible evidence that SROs make schools safer.  Moreover, Virginia does not collect data on arrests and referrals made by SROs in Virginia’s schools, so we lack the basic information necessary to determine whether existing SROs are improving our schools.  Before we require all schools, regardless of local needs, to hire SROs, we should collect and analyze this basic data.  At that point, local school leaders will have the information necessary to make an informed decision about whether to deploy a SRO in their school.
  • If SROs are going to be used in schools, they should be trained to work with children and they should be responsible for serious threats to safety, not school discipline.  Despite obvious differences between apprehending adults on the street and monitoring the safety of children in a school, SROs are currently only required to be a “certified law-enforcement officer.”  Before any discussion of a mandated role for SROs, legislators should ensure that any person charged with ensuring discipline and safety in Virginia’s public schools has received extensive training in adolescent development, conflict resolution, and other strategies to successfully handle the numerous mental and physical issues involved when interacting with children.  Furthermore, if objective evidence leads a school to deploy an SRO on its campus, then the role of the SRO should be limited to protecting students and staff from real and immediate threats; SROs should refrain from involving themselves in school disciplinary matters.  By clearly defining the role of SROs, schools will better ensure that the local courtroom does not become the new principal’s office.
While this bill is unlikely to move out of the House Appropriations Committee this year, if history offers any lessons, this bill will come up next year, and the year after, and . . . (you get the picture).  That is why it is so important to discuss the merits of this proposal – to educate our lawmakers about why this bill is the wrong approach to making our schools safer and more effective.  Please, take a moment to email your legislator about why they should focus on preventing, and not responding to violence in our schools.
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