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School Resource Officers and Racial Disparities in School Discipline and Juvenile Justice Referrals

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

A school resource officer (SRO) is a sworn law enforcement officer assigned to a designated school with the primary goal of improving school safety. In recent years, approximately 67% of public schools have an SRO present at least weekly.[1] Despite this extensive presence, there have been mixed findings regarding the impact of SROs on school safety[2] and growing concerns that school-based policing has led to increased criminalization of ordinary student misbehavior. Youth in schools with an SRO have a greater likelihood of receiving harsher discipline and more severe consequences for minor misconduct.[3] The Justice Policy Institute found that even when controlling for poverty, schools with an SRO had juvenile justice referrals for disorderly conduct that were five times the rate of schools without SROs.[4]

The roles that SROs are assigned are varied and may influence the way in which the SRO engages with students, ranging from a primarily law enforcement-focus to a role where teaching and mentoring are emphasized.[5,6] One consequence of these poorly-regulated work roles, according to a national survey of elementary, middle, and high schools,[5] is that SROs placed in schools with higher amounts of social and educational disadvantage carry out more law-enforcement related duties. In contrast, SROs assigned to less disadvantaged schools perform more education-related duties.[5]

How is structural racism implicated?

Schools resource officers are disproportionately placed in schools where the majority of students identify as Black. In schools where 75% or more of the student population identified as Black, 54% had one or more SROs present, contrasted against just 33% of schools where students identified as all White.[6] This disparity is significant because researchers have also found that Black students are more likely to be charged, arrested, and referred to juvenile courts by SROs.[7] Specifically, Black students make up 15 percent of the nationwide K-12 student population, but constitute 31 percent of all referrals to law enforcement and 36 percent of all school-based arrests.[8] Conversely, White students constitute 49 percent of the nationwide K-12 population, but only account for 37 percent of referrals to law enforcement and 33 percent of all school-based arrests.[8]

In addition, schools with an assigned SRO are more likely to have a punitive disciplinary policy in place, such as a zero-tolerance policy, as opposed to a restorative policy.[9],[10] Increased use of exclusionary discipline, such as expulsion or out-of-school suspension, disproportionately affects Black students and disrupts their educational experience.[11]Schools with an SRO are also more likely to have extensive security measures in place, like metal detectors or drug-sniffing dogs, which are more likely to be employed in low-income, predominantly non-White schools.[12] These additional security measures blur the lines between schools and the justice system, creating a perception of schools as prison-like.[13] Further, implementing multiple security measures actually decreases feelings of safety among students.[14],[15]

A systemic process called the School-to-Prison Pipeline[16] funnels youth from school into the juvenile justice system as a result of a school level infraction. Black youth, particularly males, receive harsher penalties and longer suspensions for the same misbehavior as their White peers, indicating that stereotypes and implicit biases about Black youth influence disciplinary decisions.[12,17] Altogether, these disparate practices increase the likelihood that minority youth, particularly Black males, will be subject to arrest and referral to juvenile justice for school-level offenses.[17]

Policy recommendations

In order to address these critical issues concerning school resource officers and racial disparities, it is recommended that the following federal guidelines be implemented:

Recommendation 1: Memorandum of Understanding to Clarify SROs’ Role and Evaluate Performance

Schools and law enforcement agencies should be required to put in place a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a document that establishes specific responsibilities, training requirements, and supervision for school resource officers. While 70% of schools with SROs reported having a MOU, these MOUs were often lacking in important details, such as explicit language about the SRO’s role in school discipline and parameters for reporting misconduct to law enforcement agencies.[2]The MOU should list clear expectations regarding the SRO’s priorities and time commitments for law enforcement, mentorship, and education duties, including expectations for their role in school disciplinary incidents. The MOU should also outline a system for data collection and SRO performance evaluation to detect any disparities in disciplinary practices and juvenile justice referrals. Routine evaluation can identify racist practices and provide necessary information for implementing effective change in reducing bias.[18],[19],[20]

Recommendation 2: Training Requirements that Includes Education on Racial Issues

There are presently no federal guidelines for SRO training requirements, and the overwhelming majority of states have failed to establish specific training guidelines.[21],[22] Police academy curricula lacks training on child development, racial disparities, and disproportionate minority contact.[23],[24]SROs should receive routine, evidence-based training that effectively prepares them to work with children of all backgrounds in the school setting. Federal guidelines should be issued to outline minimum training requirements for SROs.[20]

Recommendation 3: Reauthorize Federal Guidance on Nondiscriminatory School Discipline

In 2014, the Departments of Education and Justice jointly issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to elementary and secondary school personnel to provide guidance for reducing disparities in school discipline. Despite the success of this guidance in reducing overall rates of exclusionary discipline, this guidance was rescinded in 2018 without remedying the issues of disparate impact and systemic bias. We strongly recommend that the Departments of Education and Justice reissue guidance to schools for addressing school discipline disparities that unfairly rob students of color, particularly Black students, of the opportunity to learn. This is a call to action to reform the SRO role. Advocates, legislators, and federal agencies must ensure that racialized disciplinary disparities are eliminated and equitable educational opportunities affirmed. Sarah Terrell, B.S. Doctoral Student, Human Development and Family Studies, Pennsylvania State University Paula Smith, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy, University of Utah Board Member, National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives


[1] Padgett, Z., Jackson, M., Correa, S., Kemp, J., Gilary, A., Meier, A., Gbondo-Tugbawa, K., & McClure, T. (2020). School Survey on Crime and Safety: 2017–18 Public-Use Data File User’s Manual (NCES 2020-054). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. Retrieved from [2] Stern, A., & Petrosino, A. (2018). What do we know about the effects of school-based law enforcement on school safety? San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from [3] Na, C., & Gottfredson, D. C. (2013). Police officers in schools: Effects on school crime and the processing of offending behaviors. Justice Quarterly, 30(4), 619–650. [4] The Justice Policy Institute (2011, November). Education under arrest: The case against police in schools. Retrieved from: [5] Lynch, C. G., Gainey, R. R., & Chappell, A. T. (2016). The effects of social and educational disadvantage on the roles and functions of school resource officers. Policing, 39(3), 521–535. [6] Harper, K. & Temkin, D. (April 26, 2018). Compared to majority white schools, majority black schools are more likely to have security staff. Child Trends. Retrieved from [7] Skiba, R. J., Arredondo, M. I., & Williams, N. T. (2014). More than a metaphor: The contribution of exclusionary discipline to a school-to-prison pipeline. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 546-564, DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2014.958965 [8] Fulks, E., Garcia, K., & Harper, K. (2020). Research to consider as schools address community demands to renegotiate school-police partnerships. Retrieved from [9] Fisher, B. W., & Hennessy, E. A. (2016). School resource officers and exclusionary discipline in U.S. high schools: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Adolescent Research Review, 1(3), 217–233. [10] Payne, A. A., & Welch, K. (2018). The effect of school conditions on the use of restorative justice in schools. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 16(2), 224–240. [11] Weisburst, E. K. (2019). Patrolling public schools: The impact of funding for school police on student discipline and long-term education outcomes. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. [12] Kupchik, A., & Ward, G. (2014). Race, poverty, and exclusionary school security: An empirical analysis of U.S. elementary, middle, and high schools. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 12(4), 332–354. [13] Hirschfield, P. J. (2018). Schools and crime. Annual Review of Criminology, 1, 149–169. [14] Pentek, C., & Eisenberg, M. E. (2018). School resource officers, safety, and discipline: Perceptions and experiences across racial/ethnic groups in Minnesota secondary schools. Children and Youth Services Review, 88(August 2017), 141–148. [15] Theriot, M. T., & Orme, J. G. (2016). School resource officers and students’ feelings of safety at school. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 14(2), 130–146. [16] Nance, J. P. (2016). Students, police, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Washington University Law Review, 93(4), 919–987. [17] Mowen, T. & Brent, J. (2016). School discipline as a turning point: The cumulative effect of suspension on arrest. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53(5), 628–653. [18] Carter, P. L., Skiba, R., Arredondo, M. I., & Pollock, M. (2017). You can’t fix what you don’t look at: Acknowledging race in addressing racial discipline disparities. Urban Education, 52(2), 207–235. [19] Finn, P., Shively, M., Mcdevitt, J., Lassiter, W., & Rich, T. (2005). Comparison of program activities and lessons learned among 19 school resource officer (SRO) programs. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. [20] National Association of School Resource Officers. (2015). NASRO position statement on police involvement in school discipline. Retrieved from [21] Ryan, J. B., Katsiyannis, A., Counts, J. M., & Shelnut, J. C. (2018). The growing concerns regarding school resource officers. Intervention in School and Clinic, 53(3), 188–192. [22] Counts, J., Randall, K. N., Ryan, J. B., & Katsiyannis, A. (2018). School resource officers in public schools: A national review. Education and Treatment of Children, 41(4), 405–430. [23] Strategies for Youth. (2013). If not now, when? A survey of juvenile justice training in America’s police academies. Retrieved from [24] Utt, J. (2018). Dysconcious policing: A critical content analysis of school resource officer training materials. Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, 8(2), 71–89. 2152-1875

SRO Fact Sheet 2-20-21
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