Re-Thinking the Role of School Resource Officers: New Data, Renewed Call to Action

October 28, 2015

Boy_in_jail_cell_-_JJ_pageBy now, most of us have seen the video from Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. While the specifics of that incident will be examined in the coming weeks, the footage has many—including civil rights groups across the country—questioning the role of school resource officers.

In recent years, the number of law enforcement officers in schools has increased dramatically due to concerns about school safety. 

This phenomenon has not resulted in uniformly good outcomes for children—especially minority youth and children with disabilities. For students of color who have disabilities, the impact has been especially damaging. These young people have been disproportionately impacted by arrests by school resource officers for non-violent offenses that would traditionally been addressed through typical school discipline channels.

Students of color who have disabilities are disproportionately impacted by arrests by school resource officers.

In other words, instead of getting sent to the principal or to detention when they exhibit disruptive behaviors, these young people are too often referred to the juvenile justice system. A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity provides a state-by-state break down of these alarming data. 

In every state, Protection and Advocacy systems represent young people with disabilities in public schools; they serve more than 30,000 young people each year. The national network of these systems, the Protection and Advocacy Network, has raised concerns about how school resource officers may be used in school settings to manage non-violent student behavior. 

Because school resource officers’ roles differ by school and district, and in many cases are not explicitly defined or limited, the National Disability Rights Network—the national membership association for the Protection & Advocacy network—recommends that the U.S. Department of Education and the U. S. Department of Justice develop guidance on this important and timely topic.  We also recommend that these agencies enforce all relevant statutes, regulations and policies in order to prevent injury and the violation of student rights.  

Among our specific recommendations: Congress should authorize and fund a Protection and Advocacy for Juvenile Justice Program to help divert youth with disabilities from entering the juvenile justice system, investigate and monitor conditions for youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, and ensure proper return to the community with needed services and supports.

Congress should also require that schools identified as having elevated school-based arrest rates: 1) lose the opportunity to use federal funds to employ School Resource Officers (SROs); 2) ensure SROs work is limited to traditional police activities and not discipline of non- violent student behavior; and, 3) require SROs in those schools to undergo training in specific, related topics.

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Resources mentioned in this post:

Diane Smith Howard is the Senior Staff Attorney for Juvenile Justice and Education Issueswith the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). A litigator with 20 years of experience in juvenile and education law, Diane’s work at NDRN focuses on conditions for youth in the juvenile justice system and child welfare systems. 



This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.


Diane Smith Howard