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Last week, New Haven-based education consulting group Connecticut Voices for Children published a report questioning the effectiveness of school resource officers — police officers permanently stationed within schools— noting that the ability of school resource officers to arrest students in their learning environments has led to higher rates of arrest and of discipline for “school policy violations”in the classroom.

According to the National Association of School Resource Officers, the purpose of SROs is to provide a safe learning environment and foster positive relationships with students. However, per a press release about last week’s report, SROs in Connecticut schools may contribute to a higher rate of arrest or law enforcement referrals for Latinx students. For the 2015–16 school year, the average arrest rate for Latinx students at schools with SROs was six times higher than at schools where SROs are not deployed.

“While many schools look to school resource officers to improve school safety and education outcomes, these findings are troubling evidence that their presence may contribute to increased discipline for minor offenses and far greater arrest rates for Latino students,” said Camara Stokes Hudson, associate policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, according to the April 18 press release. “We need to ensure that the presence of SROs does not lead to unnecessary discipline or exacerbate existing inequalities in our education system.”

SROs first entered schools in the 1950s in an effort to improve relations between students and police officers, according to NASRO. The programs then evolved across the country with the advent of school shootings in the 1990s. NASRO estimates that between 14,000 to 20,000 SROs serve in schools today. Exact national data does not exist — police departments are not required to keep a record of officers deployed to schools.

Earlier this month, Hamden citizens strongly opposed Mayor Curt Leng’s proposal to install two SROs into the city’s elementary schools. Community groups, including the Hamden Progressive Action Network, stressed the negative impacts of SROs — both in the classroom and on Hamden’s budget. Since the hearing, the proposal has not gained any traction.

“Our group opposes the placement of SROs in elementary schools based on prior studies that have generally not shown SROS to improve school safety,” HamPAN wrote to the News, adding that schools with SROs often have higher rates of discipline for students of color and those with disabilities.

HamPAN argued that the municipality should instead vow to allocate funds to mental health positions and professional development training. On the other hand, NASRO recommends that each school in the nation employ at least one SRO and hire more based on the size of the institution.

In an interview with the News, Westport Police Department Detective Sergeant Jill Ruggiero said that correlations like those described in the report certainly existed when SRO programs first began. According to Ruggiero, school administrations would often day-to-day discipline responsibilities officers simply because they are stationed inside the schools. Yet Ruggiero added that once this trend emerged, Westport’s police department took steps to reverse it.

“We spread the word that if this is not an incident that you would be calling the police for, calling 911 for, then you should not be calling for the SRO just because they’re in your building,” Ruggiero said.

Many people see SROs as deterrents for someone looking to enter a school and do harm, Ruggiero said. However, SROs in Westport can also serve in far more varied — and somewhat mundane — capacities. She cited an example when one SRO in the Westport district helped a student fish his keys from a drain.

According to Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, SROs have been effective in building positive relationships with students. Still, McCarthy noted that selecting officers with the correct disposition and training to work with children is essential. NASRO recommends that all SROs receive at least 40 hours of special training and work as a regular police officer for at least three years before beginning their posts.

Ruggiero added that officers in schools help students build positive relationships with law enforcement.

“It shows some people that police are not the enemy,” she said.

According to the press release, 24 percent of Connecticut schools employ SROs.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu