June 17, 2020


In this Critical Issues Report, we hear from three police chiefs who learned this month that their local school boards were discontinuing use of School Resource Officers.


Key Takeaways:

The public reaction to the killing of George Floyd is prompting some cities to discontinue School Resource Officer programs, but often the underlying issues have been brewing for years. Concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline, detailed in a 2018 PERF report, are not a recent phenomenon.

The role of School Resource Officers variesIn some locations, SROs have major roles in helping students and building relationships of trust among students and faculty.  But in other cities, SROs are more limited to providing security. 

Regardless of whether a school district uses SROs, the underlying questions are the same.  In cities where SROs are being discontinued, the questions remain about ensuring school security and identifying how to help students with their needs and problems.

Many SROs consider their work a calling.   When SRO units are disbanded, police chiefs face a new challenge of helping the SROs adjust to new roles.


Charlottesville, VA Police Chief RaShall Brackney:

Our SROs Were Not Able to Do the Big Job They Were Originally Intended to Do

The Charlottesville, VA school system announced on June 11 that it is ending its current school resource officer program, with a goal to have a new model in place before school resumes on August 19. 

We’ve been in discussions for the past year and a half about what might it look like to reimagine the role of School Resource Officers.

We have been in those discussions about what would be the healthiest way for our officers to engage with minority communities, and whether we had “militarized” or “criminalized” certain locations.

Our conversations were framed in two ways. Were we contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline? Or was the perception of a school-to-prison pipeline eroding positive relationships that a lot of agencies had been building across their community?

And for us, our first question was to define what we wanted out of a School Resource Officer.

And what we heard over and over was “physical security,” as opposed to interactions with the students.

People wanted SROs to ensure that the school is safe against active shooter threats or any other intruder who might come into the school.

Wexler:  Was the decision to end the SRO program sudden?

Chief Brackney:   I’d characterize it as an abrupt decision about the discussions that we had been having over the past 18 months.

I was hoping there would be a way to phase in all of our suggestions. But I understand why our school board and our leadership here would want it to occur more immediately, and then build back in some of the other ideas that we would have on how we engage as law enforcement professionals, possibly in the schools.

Wexler: Chief, frankly, this sounds like someone just woke up, picked up a newspaper and said, “You know what?  Because of what happened in Minneapolis, we’re ending our relationship with the Charlottesville Police Department.”  Is that how it feels to you?  

Chief Brackney:   That may be how it feels, but it’s not how it occurred.  Just as police are reconsidering what our roles are in mental health, in drug addiction, in working with homeless persons, we need to consider whether we were actually doing the job that we originally thought we were going to be able to do in schools. Or have we just been relegated to serving as school security officers?

Wexler:  Interesting. What I’m hearing is that you’re not unhappy about this.

Chief Brackney:   No, I’m not unhappy about the outcome. It’s the process that is going to be much more challenging for me.

One of the first questions I asked about my School Resource Officers when I arrived here was, “What’s in their curriculum? How many SROs have gone through the training? How often are they interacting in the classroom? How often are they interacting with the school administrators, or the teachers?”

And they had zero curriculum and zero interaction, other than a lot of walking through the hallways or being there for after-school programs.  Under the MOU that we had, SROs could only come into the classrooms if the teachers invited them in. And they were not being invited in.

The School Resource Officers are well-loved, but they were not doing the job that they were originally designated to do.

I do believe there is a way to develop SRO relationships that don’t allow for the criminalization of disciplinary issues, and it doesn’t put the onus and responsibility on police agencies to handle the failed educational systems of overcrowding, not enough pay, not enough resources. Unfortunately, I think that’s where this has gone.


Portland, OR Police Chief Chuck Lovell:

This Is Tough on the School Resource Officers Who Loved Their Work

On June 4, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero announced that the School District was discontinuing the regular presence of School Resource Officers. He said the district, which didn’t pay for the police officers, intends to increase spending on social workers, counselors and other supports for students.

Wexler:   Chief, you were just sworn in as chief last week. But you’ve been at the Portland Police Bureau for 18 years, and early in your career, you served in a variety of roles, including School Resource Officer. So you have a great perspective on this. How did this come about in Portland?

Chief Lovell:  This was an issue that was talked about here previously. There has been talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, and people started to really question the value or the validity of these units. Yes, I’m a former School Resource Officer, and I’m definitely supportive of the program. I know firsthand the value of the relationship-building.

I also think there’s a built-in accountability in the school environment. School Resource Officers can’t go into a school and mistreat people. They have to show up there every day, and they’re in the hallways, in their cafeteria, at their games. People take note of who the SROs are, how they treat people, how they interact with students.

So I think that our opportunity to connect with youths is now going to be greatly hampered.

Wexler:  What happens now? Who’s going to pick up the responsibilities of the School Resource Officers? What do you see happening?

Chief Lovell:  I think when calls for service come in from schools, district officers will answer those calls. Our school district has a security team at each school, and they’ll handle the things that they’re able to handle. But for calls that require a police response, they’ll get a uniformed patrol officer responding, one who maybe isn’t familiar with the culture of each school. Each school has its own culture, based on the administration, on who lives in that district, who’s in that demographic. So not knowing that going in may be a detriment to officers who will need to handle calls there.

Wexler: How are the officers who were assigned to those schools feel about this?

Chief Lovell:  The mayor and former Chief Jami Resch met with the SROs and told them this wasn’t about them personally, but it’s very difficult. I think our most senior person in that division has been there 18 years or so. You talk about the relationships built over that time, a whole generation of high school kids. It’s difficult because we have some of the most compassionate, dedicated, caring officers who care about youths, and their future was working in that unit. To see it go away through no fault of their own was tough for them.


Chief Paul Pazen, Denver Police Department:

Most of Our Principals Wanted the SROs to Stay

On June 12, the Denver Public Schools board voted unanimously to remove 17 Denver police officers from school buildings.

Efforts to combat the school-to-prison pipeline in Denver were the subject of PERF’s 2018  report.

Our School Resource Officers have made some great relationships with many of the young people that they interact with. Some of the most compassionate officers that we have are fulfilling these types of roles.

At the same time, there are legitimate challenges and concerns that we as law enforcement need to be aware of, the school-to-prison pipeline and the role that law enforcement has had, essentially as the gatekeeper of that. In Denver, we really had made some strides to try to prevent that.

Despite our efforts, this is the direction that the school board chose, and it isn’t a brand new thing. For a couple of the school board members, this was part of their platform when they ran. So this is not out of left field for us.

We have met with the school board members who have brought this forward on how we can reimagine our interactions and relationships. And even some of the most vocal critics recognize some of the value, and we want to try to figure out what those solutions would be.

Wexler:  How did the school principals feel about this decision?

Chief Pazen:  Most of the principals with SROs wanted them to stay in the schools. There was a virtual listening session before the vote, and there were some very passionate views from principals and deans of students and others.  It wasn’t unanimous; there were some principals who support the direction that the school board ultimately voted on.  But the majority of the principals and deans of students were supportive of their individual School Resource Officers and saw the value of the relationships.

But this is an opportunity to do things differently.  One school board member pointed out that we have more than 200 schools, but only 16 have SROs. So how do you provide a positive, safe learning environment for all of the schools?

Part of the conversation also revolved around the money involved. The cost of having a School Resource Officer was split, and the schools paid a total of about $700,000 a year. So part of the discussion is about reallocating that money for counselors, nurses, mental health professionals and other resources that young people can access.

Wexler:  One of the reasons that police are in some of these schools is to prevent violent acts and even an active shooter.  Is that still a concern?

Chief Pazen:  It's very much a concern, especially here in Colorado. We've had more than our fair share of school violence incidents. It is still a focal point for law enforcement in the region. We just have to figure out different ways to keep our students and our community safe.

Wexler: You know I'm thinking of Columbine.

Chief Pazen:  Yes, and we had one at the Highlands Ranch school just a year ago. We’ve had more than our share of tragedies. But we have to reimagine how we do this work.

Wexler:  What’s your advice to other chiefs to may face this situation?

Chief Pazen:  Well, I think it’s important to have early conversations with as many of the stakeholders as you can. It’s very difficult under the COVID-19 crisis to have conversations with parent groups, student groups, school board members, school principals and staff, and others. That really has hampered our ability to work on a collaborative solution. 

This is something that’s been brewing for a while now.  With some of these quick responses, time will tell whether they were the right decisions or not.

However, regardless of how the decisions are made, we as law enforcement professionals have to figure out how we can still keep students and staff safe, regardless of whether our officers are positioned inside or outside the school.

Our overarching goals of keeping young people and the entire community safe still exist, and we just have to figure out a new paradigm on how we can accomplish those goals. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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