Law and Order and Unintended Consequences

Is more police presence in schools the answer to school shootings?

To my surprise, it’s not the right answer, based on what I’ve learned.

A major side effect of 2020’s racial tensions was the “defund the police” cry among liberals, and the corresponding pushback for “law and order” by conservatives. The situation eventually stabilized across much of the nation, and the issue slowly receded from the news, other than some ongoing trouble in places like Portland, OR. But with the shooting in a Black supermarket in Buffalo, NY, the general issue of gun violence – whether by police or private individuals – came back to the front of the national awareness. And the Uvalde, TX school shooting with the death of 19 young students and two teachers catapulted the problem of school safety to the top of most people’s awareness.

I grew up believing in a “law and order” theory of increased enforcement leading to a safer and more just society. However, as I’ve begun to study the actual effects of such enforcement, I’ve increasingly seen information that leads me to question my former conclusions.

While school safety is certainly a mere subset of the larger issue of law and order, it seems particularly important because it sets the tone for succeeding generations of American citizens’ interaction with law enforcement.

Do Armed Officers Make Things Better or Worse?

An article on the Reason website discusses the effect of increased police presence in schools.

It’s headlined “New Research Says Police in Schools Don’t Reduce Shootings but They Do Increase Expulsions and Arrests” and is summarized “While police in schools ‘do effectively reduce some forms of violence,’ they intensify the use of school discipline and arrests.”

It makes a fairly compelling case that not only does it not have the desired effect, increased police officer presence in schools has several directly undesirable effects, and furthermore, those effects are strongly racially biased. The presence of school resource officers (SROs) is correlated with twice as many suspensions, expulsions, court referrals, and arrests for black students.

Immediately in my mind, I can hear myself just a few years ago replying “Well, if the arrests and expulsions are disproportionate towards black students, that’s because they’re the ones causing more trouble in the schools.”

That’s a fair question to ask, but is it really true?

I should begin by noting that the paper is extremely through. As someone who routinely designs tests and ways of measuring things, and looks for holes in my test logic and ways that my work might be biased, every question I asked myself I found quickly answered, and the authors were very careful to add appropriate controls and to address ways in which the data were limited in applicability or scope. In short, I found the study to be very compelling.

It’s noteworthy that adding SROs to the mix should not change the discipline needed in a given environment. If in a school without SROs, students are causing trouble, they (theoretically) should already be dealt with through expulsions or suspensions, and if the trouble is serious enough that the police need to be called, then arrests or court referrals should already be taking place. So adding SROs to the situation would not logically change the punishment profile by itself.

But it does.

The paper on which that article is based, “The Thin Blue Line in Schools: New Evidence on School-Based Policing Across the U.S.” points out that “Contrary to frequently cited objectives of SRO programs, the introduction of a full time SRO appears to increase gun-related offenses, perhaps due to increased detection and reporting activities of the police officer within the school. It also marginally increases the likelihood of a school shooting.”

That’s fascinating: SROs INCREASE the likelihood of school shootings?

It also says “At the same time, the introduction of an SRO does appear to improve general student safety by decreasing non-firearm related violent offenses, such as physical attacks and fights. This benefit comes at a high cost of increased disciplinary responses both by the school and law enforcement.”

In other words, a mild scrap between two students, which might otherwise have resulted in a stern talking-to in days past, now results in a police record.

Biases in the Effects from SRO Presence

It also appears that SRO presence has a disproportionate effect – more than double – for students with disabilities. And it also affects chronic absenteeism and school outcomes.

“Students in middle schools in a district with a CIS grant” (which provides for hiring SROs) “experienced a 2.5 percent reduction in high school graduation rates and a 4% decrease in college enrollment.”

One study (discussed on page 11) noted that the outcomes of problematic behaviors (within a given studied school) were worse for Hispanic students, and much worse for Black students, implying that within a given school, the punishments were not being applied equally.

This article in The Trace presents data showing that SROs do not act as a significant deterrent, based on actual school shooting data. In four school shootings in 2018 that took place in schools with SROs, none were stopped by the SROs. Nor do shooters favor “gun-free zone” schools – out of 111 shootings between 1966 and 2015, only 18 were in gun-free zones.

For example, the 2018 school shooting a half mile away from my house in Southern Maryland took place in a school that hosts an armed SRO at all times. As a student in that school, the shooter was well aware of the presence of an armed SRO, and it did not deter him. Although the SRO did contribute to the end of the situation, evidence showed that the shooter did not intend further violence beyond his two primary victims, and his death was self-inflicted.

This is not really surprising. Quite a large fraction of school shooters have no intent of coming out of the situation alive – it’s essentially a “death by cop” situation, where they intend to wreak as much vengeance as possible on their tormentors before they die.

An article in the Washington Post discusses recent developments in schools and SROs, and points out that having armed SROs available causes school staff to default to using the SRO rather than attempting to resolve a situation calmly and with understanding that children’s judgement is often immature and needs a different approach than a typical adult.

An article by the ACLU discusses the impact of a decrease in focus on school mental health counselors, leading to over-criminalization of students – as well as assessing the resulting disparity between races in arrests and police involvement (blacks overall 3 times that of whites, and black girls 8 times that of white girls, even though only about 16 percent of school populations). In particular, students with disabilities bear a particularly large brunt of this disparity – nearly 3 times more than non-disability students.

And once a student has entered the arrest cycle, the chances of a lifetime of adverse police involvement skyrockets.

Actual Cases

While not about a school resource officer as such, this recent story about a 10-year-old arrested in Hawaii for a mere drawing is a good example of police overreach and the negative consequences.

Or a special needs autistic 11-year-old handcuffed for 23 minutes, resulting in a broken bone, after being bullied and subsequently acting out.

Or this special-needs 8-year-old arrested and pursued with felony charges for nine months before prosecutors dropped the case.

Or this story from February about a 6-year-old arrested and zip-tied by an SRO for a tantrum.

Or this story about an autistic 11-year-old arrested by SROs, handcuffed, left in the back of a police cruiser for two hours, then jailed for 7 hours, without any contact with his parents.

There is also solid evidence that armed officers in schools contribute to gun incidents, including numerous inadvertent firearm discharges, plus many attempts by students to use the officer’s gun during an altercation.

I really appreciated this quote: “The criminal justice system has become America’s default solution for all of its social problems, and that mentality has oozed into the classroom.”

Other SRO Considerations

Beyond these problems with introducing armed SROs into school situations, there are other considerations.

For one thing, the constant presence of armed guards changes the atmosphere in any situation, and this results in tangible detrimental effects on the students.

A typical gun rights lobby answer to this fact is that “children dying in school shootings also has detrimental effects on students.” That’s certainly fair, but it’s only applicable to this discussion if introducing armed officers to schools reduces that possibility – which the data doesn’t show is actually the case.

For another thing, one cannot state with confidence that an armed officer in a school can prevent school shootings in the first place. Purely aside from the empirical evidence that the rate of shootings doesn’t change, there is a logic to the problem. Single-person armed forces guarding a large school suffer from a nearly insurmountable disadvantage: It’s nearly impossible to effectively and consistently defend against surprise attack in a peacetime situation. If the attacker gets to choose the time and place, the defender will be caught unawares, because nobody is constantly on high alert unless they’re expecting an imminent attack. So the determined school shooter will always have the advantage, and will nearly always be able to inflict significant damage before an SRO can possibly respond. The SRO might be able to end the carnage sooner, but not prevent it entirely.

Furthermore, if there’s only one guard, an intelligent attacker will likely start by disabling them, and then proceed to rampage unhindered until backups arrive, many minutes later.

Military Versus Police Training Differences

Finally, there’s a pretty important consideration for armed police officers as protectors of nearby citizens. On his blog, David French pointed out that there’s a crucial difference between soldiers and police officers. Soldiers are inherently trained, ultimately, to follow orders that likely will get them killed. In other words, they’re trained in self-sacrifice.

Police officers, however, are trained to preserve their own lives, so that they’re able to continue to preserve the lives of those around them. If they die, they can’t “serve and protect.” They’re not trained in self-sacrifice. Instead, they’re trained to quickly identify and neutralize the threat.

A consequence of this training is that they’ll tend to aggressively attack a threat, rather than trying to neutralize it without using their gun. So an armed school resource officer is far more likely to use force to defend HIMSELF (and those around him by extension).

And the same is generally true of any citizen. After all, the point of having a gun is self defense, allegedly. It’s also defending loved ones, of course. But the point is never to protect the life of the threat.

So the chances of the gun being used violently are very high if a threat exists and a gun is in the situation. There’s little incentive to find a less violent solution. Granted, for a school shooting, there’s no chance of a peaceful resolution. But for the vast, vast majority of situations an SRO will encounter, the preferred approach would always be de-escalation, but the presence of the SRO’s gun does not encourage it.

Furthermore, when the SRO’s goal is to first preserve his own life, THEN to address the threat, just like in Uvalde, many SROs and police have been shown to avoid promptly taking action, instead trying to bring in overwhelming force and more defensive gear, by which time the shooter has had lots of time to cause further death and injury. It’s very different than the response from a military unit.

My Conclusions

So taken as a whole, when I evaluate the assertion that a primary answer to school shootings is more armed officers on campus, I find the opposite to be true: armed SROs likely make the overall situation worse.

I believe this general answer will also apply to arming teachers. Purely aside from the concerns of many teachers that do not personally want guns in their school, even carried by people trained to use them, there is no evidence that adding guns into the situation, no matter who carries them, increases the overall safety. Instead, there are plenty of significant risks introduced, both legal and physical.

Focusing attention on SROs or arming teachers as a solution only distracts from other ways of addressing the school violence issue, and the larger gun violence issue as well. It offers a panacea, making people feel like something definitive is being done – but like all panaceas, it won’t work, and effectively ends the search for a real solution with the mistaken belief that a solution has been found and implemented.

One more observation: this particular topic of adding armed personnel to schools, whether SROs or teachers, illustrates a general trend I have observed: those already in favor of gun rights seem to always have “more guns” as a component of their answer to gun violence problems. I suspect that tendency is borne out of a desire to avoid answering “less guns” in any form, because it might lead to laws restricting guns, which might impact their personal ability to purchase or own guns.

While I still have plenty to think about regarding gun violence, my conclusion is that more SROs or arming teachers are definitively not the answer to school shootings.

I am also increasingly disinclined to believe that more guns is an answer to any form of violent crime.

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