Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

What We Know About the Effectiveness of Assigning Police Officers to Schools

Despite their popularity, few studies are available which have reliably evaluated the effectiveness of SROs. Addressing this is important in order to inform future SRO programs and to improve our understanding on how to maximize effectiveness with limited resources. Ideally, research should attempt to match the goals of a specific program with its outcomes to see if the program is achieving what it is intended to and through what mechanisms. In the case of school resource officers, the types of benefits that school administrators seek from having police officers working in their schools include:

  • Increased safety in and around the schools
  • Increased perceptions of safety
  • Improved police call response times
  • Reductions in truancy
  • Fewer distractions from their teachers' teaching and class preparation duties.12

Most existing SRO research does not tell us if these hoped-for benefits are achieved. SRO research tends to be descriptive in nature—it characterizes what SROs do on a daily basis, typical traits of SROs, and the perceptions of people involved with SRO programs.

It also often addresses satisfaction with the program. Many school administrators and parents express satisfaction with their SRO programs, even in instances where there was initial resistance to the idea of placing police officers in schools.13

School administrator, teacher, and parent satisfaction is one measure of the value of an SRO program. However, given the investment that communities and the federal government have made in hiring, training, and maintaining a police presence in schools, it is important to combine such assessments with reliable impact evaluations to establish program effectiveness. More outcome-focused research is needed to establish whether (and how) SROs are effective in reducing crime and disorder; that is, whether they make schools safer.

Changes in Crime and Violence

Program evaluation is essential to determining whether a program is effective, to improving programming, and to gaining continued funding. However, numerous research studies note that SRO programs should do more to collect important process and outcome evaluation data.14 Most participating police chiefs indicate no formal evaluation systems in place, and few SRO programs participate in independent evaluations that assess whether program goals have been met.15

Studies of SRO effectiveness that have measured actual safety outcomes have mixed results. Some show an improvement in safety and a reduction in crime; others show no change. Typically, studies that report positive results from SRO programs rely on participants' perceptions of the effectiveness of the program rather than on objective evidence. Other studies fail to isolate incidents of crime and violence, so it is impossible to know whether the positive results stem from the presence of SROs or are the result of other factors. More studies would be helpful, particularly research to understand the circumstances under which SRO programs are most likely to be successful.

There is research that suggests that although SRO programs do not significantly impact youth criminality, the presence of an officer nonetheless can enhance school safety. For example, the presence of SROs may deter aggressive behaviors including student fighting, threats, and bullying, and may make it easier for school administrators to maintain order in the school, address disorderly behavior in a timely fashion, and limit the time spent on disciplinary matters.16 Again, these are usually self-reported measures. The difficulty with self-reporting is that outcomes are speculative. It would be more useful to see data that compare the frequency of the activities at issue both before and after the tenure of the SRO; for such data to be compelling, any changes would have to be attributable only to the presence of the SRO and not to other factors.

Success Stories in the United Kingdom and Canada

At least two programs have evaluated specific safety outcomes and found improvements due to the presence of police in schools. These are the Safer Schools Partnership (SSP) in the United Kingdom and the Toronto Police-School Districts School Resource Officer program. These programs hold lessons for school safety efforts in the United States. The U.K.'s Safer Schools Partnership (SSP) is a comprehensive community and school safety program that incorporates many interventions and partners to improve pupil safety and to create safer working environments and safer communities.17 There is evidence that the SSP has reduced offending behavior and victimization, reduced truancy rates and total absences, and has provided safer school environments and safer routes to and from school. Students and staff report that they felt safer once the program was introduced. Other benefits of the SSP include improvements in educational attainment, improved multi-agency problem solving, improved relations between young people and the police, and an increase in the level of respect young people have for their fellow students.18 Key aspects of this program are the comprehensive nature of the intervention, the understanding that "school liaison officers" are but one component of an overall youth plan that is rooted in the community, and the incorporation of school liaison officers into local neighborhood policing efforts, rather than isolated at a particular school.

A chief accomplishment of the Toronto SRO program was the research effort to assess changes in safety measures at participating schools. In general, safety measures improved. The study can be looked to as an example of how to track the impacts of SRO activity. The Toronto study reported the following19:

  • Students, teachers, and school administrators all reported feeling safe in and around the school both before and after the SRO program was implemented.
  • Students were more likely to report being a crime victim to police, but no more likely to report witnessing a crime after the SRO program was implemented.
  • Reported offenses both on school grounds and in the immediate surrounding neighborhood decreased after the SRO program was implemented although there were more crime victims in the immediate surrounding neighborhood during school hours.

The Toronto evaluators concluded:

Overall, the evaluation finds that the School Resource Officer program demonstrated a number of positive effects on schools and students, particularly those students who had interacted with the SROs. The SRO program has the potential to be increasingly beneficial to crime prevention, crime reporting and relationship building, in the schools and in surrounding neighbourhoods.20

Changes in Perceptions of Safety

A police presence can make some communities feel safer; this is true for school communities as well. Most studies of the effects of SRO programs focus on reports that faculty, parents, and students feel safer when there is a police officer present in the school. Research by the Center for Prevention of School Violence indicates that the presence of SROs in schools makes students, teachers, and staff feel safer and can be a positive deterrent to incidents and acts of violence.21 This finding corresponds with the results of a poll of the general public indicating that 65 percent of persons surveyed believe that placing a police officer in schools would reduce school violence.22

Changes in Perceptions of Police

Studies provide conflicting evidence regarding the effects of SROs upon student perceptions of police. For example, an anecdotal argument in favor of SROs is that police officers assigned to schools have unique access to students, teachers, and parents, and as a result can fundamentally affect their perceptions of police. However, a study of SRO programs in four schools in southeastern Missouri suggests that the presence of SROs in schools does not change student views of the police in general.23

The authors of the Missouri study surmised that the lack of change was partly attributable to the negative contact that young people have with police and SROs. More research would inform decisions about the most effective use of limited resources – for instance, it is important to understand whether a combination of counseling, crime prevention programs, and delinquency awareness programs, as well as police in schools would have more impact on crime and safety.24

Additional Effects of Officers in Schools

SRO programs can have other desirable effects, including providing police feedback on the concerns and fears of local youth, broadening departmental understanding about the educational concerns of community members, and encouraging young people to become involved in other police activities.25 SRO programs sometimes even serve as indirect police recruiting tools.

There are also potential negative effects of having a dedicated officer in schools. It is possible these effects could be mitigated through careful communication with parents, staff, and students. Important topics to discuss include whether the presence of an officer with a gun gives the impression that something is wrong at the school or generates fear among staff, parents, and students.26

Problem Solving in Boston Schools

The Boston (Massachusetts) Police Department (BPD), led by supervisors and officers in the department's Schools Unit, collaborated with faculty, teachers, students, and other stakeholders to develop a systematic approach to restore order and safety in the city's most troubled schools. The School Impact Project grew out of a crisis in Dorchester High School.

Dorchester High had been experiencing violence and criminal activity for many years, but the school had been reluctant to admit the severity of the problem. By early 2000, Dorchester High faced a spate of violent incidents that threatened to shut down the school. The principal requested focused police intervention.

The principal, superintendent of schools, and BPD officials agreed to assess the problem and implement a plan. The intervention team of primary stakeholders included school representatives, police personnel, a district attorney, probation officers, and staff from youth services, faith-based and nonprofit organizations.

The scanning process showed that incidents were typically gang and drug related, with frequent stabbings and shootings. School safety police officers, private security personnel hired by the Boston Public Schools, were also being attacked. The violent incidents led community leaders to call for the school’s closing. The already high level of fear among students was exacerbated by a breakdown in basic order. One student described the situation: "It’s scary here. School should be a safe place and it’s not here. I'm nervous. Lots of people are."

Intervention team members made a year-long commitment to enhancing school safety. Their main goals were to create a safe school environment; to enforce the rules outlined in the school code of conduct; and to maintain a safe learning environment.

The principal announced the new initiative and members of the team addressed the entire student body with a unified message of intolerance toward violence and disruption, with a strong focus on consequences. The faculty was asked to play a significant role in supporting the plan, with the idea that once safety was restored, faculty would take on even more of the enforcement activity.

The plan was implemented in February 2000. The school saw immediate and dramatic results. As each week passed, the school enforced an additional rule from the code of conduct. For example, the "no hat policy," the "no Walkman policy," and rules against tardiness were phased in. As the weeks went by, teachers and school administrators became more confident in enforcing rules knowing that they had administration and police support. Administrators were able to effect expedient expulsions. Incident reports from before and after the initiative showed a dramatic drop. Incidents at the school dropped from 104 in the four months prior to implementation to just 14 incidents during the four months after the initiative—an 86.5 percent decrease. Interviews with students and teachers overwhelmingly showed a reduction of fear and an increase in feelings of safety. Students also felt better about being at school. The onset of the intervention proved most challenging, as strategies were developed and refined as needed. For example, placement of metal detectors at the front doors failed to stop students from carrying weapons in through side doors.

The other significant success was the establishment of a relationship between the school and the BPD. Prior to this partnership, schools were hesitant to allow official police intervention. Following the successful implementation of the program, however, incidents of crime and disorder drew immediate and coordinated responses, not only from police, but from community organizations as well. With the success at Dorchester High, the Boston Police School Safety Unit established similar initiatives with other public schools. The environment is now conducive to open information sharing and creative strategy development. The BPD School Police Unit has grown from one officer and one detective to a team of 10 full-time officers. The overall success of the initiative was summed up by the Superintendent of Schools: "Safety is no longer a concern at Dorchester High" (Boston (Massachusetts) Police Department, 2001).