Police in Schools

Florida has long had a significant history of sending youth along the school-to-prison pipeline, at one point leading the country in these harmful practices.[i] The school-to-prison pipeline is a phenomenon that is often cited as beginning with policies and practices that push students out of school and criminalize student behavior.[ii] Specifically, the expansion of zero tolerance policies and the use of exclusionary discipline such as out-of-school suspension has leads to reduced access to academic instruction, harmed student-school connection, and exacerbation of student behavioral difficulties creating a cascade effect where students are significantly more likely to drop out of school and end up in the juvenile justice system.[iii] Students who are either suspended or expelled have been shown to be three times as likely to have future interactions with law enforcement, particularly the juvenile justice system, within one year of punishment.[iv] The school-to-prison pipeline is especially problematic in that it disproportionately impacts particularly groups of students, namely students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBTQ+.

Arguably, the school-to-prison pipeline is built long before the policies that govern school practices in the building. Schools and the policies that guide them not only are applied in a discriminatory fashion, but are built on a foundation of inequity that is illustrated by the continued segregation of schools and the inequitable allocation of resources to those schools.[v]  In a recent report, “Cops and No Counselors,” conducted by the ACLU, it was found that 1.6 million American students attend schools that have at least one law enforcement office, but no guidance counselor, 3 million with police but no nurses, 6 million with police, but no school psychologists, and 10 million with police but no social worker. [vi]

In Florida for the 2018-19 school year, there was 1 school resource officer (SRO) for every 779 students – an increase in police presence in schools by 97% from the previous year.[vii] On the other hand, one school psychologist served approximately 1,952 students, one school counselor around 459 students, and one school social worker served nearly 2,004 students.  There were 17 districts with no school social worker and 13 districts with no school psychologists. These numbers are well above the recommended ratios for each (1 school counselor and 1 social worker for every 250 students[viii], 1 school psychologist for every 500 students[ix]). In the 2018-19 school year nearly $156 million was spent employing SRO’s[x] and an additional $98 million was spent on school hardening measures such as metal detectors for a total of $254 million.[xi] Yet, only $69 million was allocated for school-based mental health services.[xii]

This contrast in priorities is especially notable given that the needs are the opposite. Specifically, schools are the safest they have ever been[xiii] and there is very little consistent evidence that police presence in schools make them safe.[xiv] Even SROs agree that employing more police or SROs will not stop school shootings.[xv] On the other hand, students today are reporting more stress than any other generation,[xvi] as well as significant declines in mental health and increasing suicidality.[xvii] School-based mental health professionals such as school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists play a vital role in collecting and analyzing data regarding the emotional, mental health, and behavioral needs of youth, designing effective interventions to address those needs, promoting and supporting early intervention and preventative services, providing individual and group counseling, providing consultative services to teachers, and finally, coordinating community services to provide additional wrap around supports to families.[xviii] These services are in line with the U.S. Secret Service report that indicates that the best way to prevent school shootings is to address and end bullying in schools, address the mental health needs of students, and for staff to have high quality relationships with students so that threats are better detected and reported.[xix]

Despite the myriad of evidence-based services that school-based mental health professionals can provide that truly make schools safe, tragic events like Parkland have led to reactionary policy development toward hardening schools. In about a decade following the shooting at Columbine, police presence in schools increased 38%.[xx]  The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the professional organization for police in schools, describes the “triad role” of the SRO as serving as teachers, informal counselors/mentors, and law enforcement, specifically stating that SROs should not be involved in disciplinary decision-making.[xxi] It would seem that most SROs, however, are not fulfilling that role.  In a survey of nearly 400 SROs conducted by Education Week, only 17% of SROs reported engaging in mentoring and even fewer (only 2%) reported engaging in teaching with 7% reporting their primary role is disciplinarian.[xxii] The majority (41%) reported their primary role involved law enforcement. This role variation is not surprising when considering how few states (55%) have defined the role of the police in schools in statute and even fewer (53%) have outlined required training for SROs.[xxiii] In actuality, the impact of police in schools seems to not only not necessarily improve safety, but in many cases strengthens and exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline.

Only ¾ of SROs reported having training in working with youth and only ¼ reported having any experience working with youth prior to being placed in a school.[xxiv] The highest percentage of law enforcement officers on campus can be found in high poverty schools where at least half of the population identifies as being of color, accounting for roughly 51% of high schools with Black or Latinx student populations.[xxv] It is unclear what training police have for working in high poverty environments where youth are more likely to have experienced trauma and be exhibiting trauma responses.

Trends suggest that with increased police presence in schools comes increased disciplinary action,[xxvi] reported student offenses and school-based arrests[xxvii] and greater arrests for non-violent offenses like disorderly conduct.[xxviii] Also concerning is that students who attend schools with increased police presence tend to also report decreased feelings of school connectedness[xxix] – a variable thought to be critical to student threat reporting. This might help to explain why, as police presence increased in Florida’s schools by 97% in the 2018-19 school year[xxx], school-based arrests increased by 8% where previous trends in school-based arrests were relatively on the decline[xxxi] and community-based arrests of youth continue to decline.[xxxii]


Check out the link to data and trends in school resource officers and school-based mental health provider employment here.

Effective Interventions

  • While law enforcement can play an important role in liaising with schools to develop school safety plans, there is no evidence that their presence in schools make students any safer.
  • In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that increased presence of law enforcement in schools is associated with increased risk for students ending up in the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • The safest ways to improve already safe schools is to employ more school-based mental health professionals in line with recommended ratios.

Recommendations for Policy Makers

  • Your investments show your priorities.  Your priority should be providing students with the mental health supports they need – the mental health assessment and intervention recommended by the U.S. Secret Service for keeping students safe.
  • If SROs will be present in schools, legislate a defined role for SROs in schools.  Utah state and Washington D.C. are both excellent examples.
    • Increase required training for SROs such that they are well-versed in child development, de-escalation techniques,

Recommendations for Administrators

  • Ensure that SROs are NEVER used in disciplinary matters.
  • Ensure that you have enough school-based mental health professionals to meet student needs.
  • Advocate for the widespread use of civil citations (a pre-arrest diversion) in your district.

Recommendations for Educators

  • Consult your school-based mental health professional (a school counselor, school social worker, or school psychologist) when you are in need of consultation for student behavioral concerns.
  • Seek out professional development in alternatives to exclusionary discipline.

Recommendations for Caregivers

  • Get to know your student’s school-based mental health professionals and advocate for more of them!
  • Talk with your student’s school about the role of the SRO and stress your desire for them to NOT be involved in student discipline.


[i]Colorlines. (2013). Florida’s School-to-Prison Pipeline is Largest in the Nation.   https://www.colorlines.com/articles/floridas-school-prison-pipeline-largest-nation

[ii] Mallett, C. A. (2015). The school-to-prison pipeline: A comprehensive assessment. Springer Publishing Company.

[iii] American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools?: An evidentiary review and recommendations. The American Psychologist, 63(9), 852–862.

[iv] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2019). Beyond Suspensions: Examining school discipline policies and connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for students of Color with disabilities. Washington, DC.

[v] Vox. (2018). We can draw school zones to make classrooms less segregated. This is how well your district does. 

[vi] Whitaker, A,Torres-Guillén, S., Morton, M., Jordan, H., Coyle, S., Mann, A.,& Sun, W. L. (2019). Cops not counselors: How the lack of school mental health professionals is harming children.

[vii] Florida Department of Education. (2019). Safe Schools Appropriation Expenditures Report

[viii] American School Counselor Association. National Association of School Social Workers.

[ix] National Association of School Psychologists. (2013). Comprehensive School Safety Policies.

[x] Florida Department of Education. (2019). Safe Schools Appropriation Expenditures Report.

[xi] Florida Department of Education. (2019). Educational Facilities Security Grant. 

[xii] Florida Department of Education. (2019). FEFP Final Calculation Mental Health Assistance Allocation.

[xiii] Musu-Gillette, L., Zhang, A., Wang, K., Zhang, J., Kemp, J., Diliberti, M., & Oudekerk, B.A. (2018). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2017 (NCES 2018–036/NCJ 251413). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

[xiv] End Zero Tolerance. (2020). Researching the impact of policing in schools.  

[xv] Education Week Research Center. (2018). School policing: results of a national survey of school resource officers.

[xvi] American Psychological Association. (2018). Stress in America: Gen Z.

[xvii] Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of abnormal psychology128(3), 185.

[xviii] National Association of School Psychologists. Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.

[xix] U.S. Secret Service. (2019). Protecting America’s Schools: A U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence.

[xx] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, “Local Police Departments, 1997,” “Local Police Departments, 2000,” “Local Police Departments, 2003,” and Local Police Departments, 2007”

[xxi] National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) (2019). About NASRO.

[xxii] Education Week Research Center. (2018). School policing: results of a national survey of school resource officers.

[xxiii] MacDonald, H. & Perez, Z. (2019). 50-state comparison: K-12 safety. Education Commission of the States.

[xxiv] Education Week Research Center. (2018). School policing: results of a national survey of school resource officers.

[xxv] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2019). Beyond Suspensions: Examining school discipline policies and connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for students of Color with disabilities. Washington, DC.

[xxvi] Fisher, B. W., & Hennessy, E. A. (2016). School resource officers and exclusionary discipline in US high schools: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Adolescent Research Review, 1(3), 217–233. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-015-0006-8.

[xxvii] Torres, M. S., & Stefkovich, J. A. (2009). Demographics and police involvement: implications for student civil liberties and just leadership. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(3), 450–473. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161X09335545.

[xxviii] Theriot, M. T. (2009). School resource officers and the criminalization of student behavior. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37(3), 280–287. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2009.04.008.

[xxix] Theriot, M. T. (2016). The impact of school resource officer interaction on students’ feelings about school and school police. Crime & Delinquency, 62(4), 446–469. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128713503526.

[xxx] Florida Department of Education. (2019). Safe Schools Appropriation Expenditures Report.

[xxxi] Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. (2020). Delinquency in Schools Dashboard.

[xxxii] Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. (2019). Delinquency Profile.