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University of Delaware Prof. Aaron Kupchik says there is no consistent research showing that having police officers (often called school resource officers) in school buildings prevents student crime, or even school shootings.

Policing our schools

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Students found to benefit more from counselors, social workers

With the nation’s growing awareness of systemic racism and the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, many communities are reconsidering their policy of assigning officers to school buildings and questioning whether those salaries would be better spent—and more helpful to students—on counselors or social workers.

For social scientists like the University of Delaware’s Aaron Kupchik, this is not a new idea. He and other researchers have been studying the issue and raising these same questions for decades.

All those studies have found little evidence that stationing a police officer in a school helps to reduce or prevent crime and, instead, have found that more problems often are created, said Kupchik, professor of sociology and criminal justice.

2017 publicity photo of Aaron Kupchik, Professor of Sociology. - (Evan Krape / University of Delaware)
UD Sociology Prof. Aaron Kupchik

Now, as educators and policy makers begin examining the subject of whether and how police, often known as school resource officers (SROs) are deployed, he hopes their discussions and decisions will also be guided by the research.

"There is no consistent research showing that SROs are able to prevent student crime, or even school shootings,” Kupchik said. “Most high-quality studies show either no effect or that the presence of an SRO is associated with more student crime and misbehavior."

Schools and communities often argue that having an officer in a school provides students with an additional responsible adult who can listen to their concerns and help deal with problems. Most SROs are caring and professional, Kupchik said, but they are not trained counselors and are routinely expected to handle situations that are outside their experience and training.

“Police in schools are asked to do so much that’s not about law enforcement, things that could be much better handled by social workers or counselors trained in child development,” he said. “I’m certainly in favor of having schools provide trusted adults, but that person does not have to be a law enforcement officer.

“In fact, national studies show that students are less likely to take concerns to a police officer than to some other adult in a school, especially because an officer can’t treat information — such as a student’s concern about a friend’s possible drug use — as confidential.”

Kupchik cited findings from rigorous research studies, including: When a police officer is on site, there’s a greater chance of students being arrested, even for relatively minor incidents. As an illustration, in one school where Kupchik did research, he found that when two students fought, both were routinely arrested, even if one was, for example, a target of bullying or victimized in other ways.

And, especially important, he said, is that racial disparities — unintentional though they may be — occur widely.

“Across the board, in all situations where law enforcement steps in at a school, there are clearly racial disparities,” he said. “Black students are more likely to get arrested and more likely to face serious charges.”

No one is condoning misbehavior by students, but not all bad behavior should result in a child or teen being put into the criminal justice system, Kupchik said.

“This is such an amazing moment right now, with the calls for social justice, even while it’s appalling that it took so many deaths to bring this to widespread attention,” he said. “It’s great to see the increasing awareness, and I hope that translates to policymakers paying more attention to research and making thoughtful decisions.”

About Aaron Kupchik

Kupchik, who joined the UD faculty in 2006, studies the policing and punishment of juveniles in school, courts and correctional facilities.

His work has looked at the broad context of schools and punishment, and identifying children’s behavior as criminal in relation to issues including metal detectors and so-called zero tolerance policies in which young students are often arrested for relatively minor offenses.

He has published six books, including The Real School Safety Problem: The long-term consequences of harsh school punishment and Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting adolescents in adult and juvenile courts

His current work is focused on examining the relationship between court-ordered desegregation and school punishment. School suspensions began as a punishment in the 1960s, he said, and students of color are disproportionately suspended from schools.

He has found that school districts that have been the subject of court cases ordering desegregation are much more likely to have higher rates of suspension of Black students, raising the question of whether those schools are using suspension as a tool to resist desegregation.

Kupchik is also studying the legacy of racialized violence in schools and how that relates to desegregation.

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