Some school districts defund SROs while others view them as invaluable
On Board Online • November 30, 2020
By Pauline Liu
Last school year, a sheriff's deputy assigned to Sullivan BOCES cracked two cases involving men who contacted underage students through social media. Deputy Robert Cintron, 34, arrested each man after hearing about separate incidents either from a school counselor or the students themselves.
The cases might have gone unreported if Cintron had not been assigned as a school resource officer (SRO), according Cintron's supervisor, Sgt. Cheryl Crumley of the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office. "The students or their counselor knew they could talk to Deputy Cintron. He's the friendly face police officer who they're familiar with."
But the role of all police officers, including SROs, has been under scrutiny since George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. Eight days later, the Minneapolis school board voted to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department which provided armed officers for school security. Board members said they could no longer partner with the police agency because they agreed with protesters that police in Minneapolis had demonstrated a culture of perpetuating unjustified violence based in racism.
As the Black Lives Matter movement spread across the nation, school boards from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, decided to cut SRO programs. According to a nonprofit reform group called the Justice Policy Institute, dozens of school districts in 17 states moved away from using SROs in the 2020-21 school year, and the list is growing daily.
SRO salaries vary by state and generally range from about $45,000 to $70,000. Police agencies employ them, but school districts often pay all or part of the officer's salary and benefits.
The number of SROs in schools exploded following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Columbine, Colorado. The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), estimates that between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs are currently employed nationwide.
According to Mac Hardy, NASRO's director of operations, SRO training is designed to help officers avoid confrontations like the ones that have spurred protests.
"Our job is to de-escalate a situation," he said. "We're there to break the school-to-prison pipeline, and arrest is the last tool in our toolbox."
In New York, the number of SROs doubled from 200 to 400 in 2019. But a growing number of districts are shedding them.
For instance, the Rochester City School District, which has an enrollment of more than 25,000 students, recently scrapped its 12-member SRO program. City Council President Loretta Scott told the news media she supported defunding the SRO program on both fiscal and philosophical grounds.
Since the district has switched to virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has also cut back its original staff of 119 unarmed school security officers (SSO), assigning them as needed. According to the district, about 50 SSOs are employed on a daily basis; roughly one assigned to each school. Each SSO is required to have a security certification and be trained in restorative practice and conflict resolution.
Meanwhile, in Chautauqua County, the westernmost county in New York, four rural school districts each decided not to continue an SRO program with the Chautauqua Sheriff's Office. The Bemus Point, Brocton, Cassadaga Valley and Frewsburg school districts had each employed a single officer.
"The motivation was based on finances and nothing else," Bemus Point Superintendent Joseph Reyda said. "The officer we had did a fantastic job," he added.
Bemus Point was incurring $70,000 of unexpected expenses, mostly related to the pandemic, including PPE and cleaning supplies. Under the circumstances, the board decided that the district couldn't afford to pay the $64,000 annual SRO salary from its general fund, Reyda said.
Also influencing the decision was the state Budget Division's repeated warnings that up to 20% of school aid could be withheld, along with a reduction in some state aid payments received over the summer.
Similarly, school officials in Brocton saw the financial writing on the wall. "In anticipation of the state aid projections, the district made the decision not to renew the SRO contract well before it expired," said Brocton School Business Executive Caitlin Barkley.
Regardless of the rationale for cuts in SRO positions, one pertinent question remains without a consensus answer: Does a police presence make schools safer?
"Most research into these issues - whether police actually make schools safer, or whether their presence harms students - shows that schools with more police tend to have higher arrest and suspension rates," according to a July 23 article published by Chalkbeat. "But that doesn't tell us whether police are the cause, or if officers are just more likely to be present at schools with the biggest challenges."
Groups such as the Alliance for Quality Education call for defunding SROs. "All of the research shows that arrests made by SROs fall disproportionately on students of color, LGBTQ and students with disabilities," said AQE Executive Director Jasmine Gripper. Instead, schools should spend money on counselors and training staff in restorative justice, she said.
But when a student commits a violent act, sells drugs, trespasses or otherwise violates the penal code, many teachers like the idea of having a police officer on campus. Some teachers unions have fought to keep SROs in their districts.
Defunding is a "knee jerk reaction" that is unjustified, according to Brian Forte, executive director of the State of New York Police Juvenile Officers Association (SNYPJOA), a training and advocacy organization that serves SROs.
"The SRO is an integral part of a school community and all schools should have police in their schools keeping kids safe," Forte said.
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