Chalk drawing of school. “Untitled” by stux licensed by Pixaby

When the parents of young children picture their elementary school experience, they likely recall their parent dropping them off inside their classroom, maybe even parents joining students for lunch or volunteering on the playground. As children, parents were unlikely to experience the kinds of security typical in elementary schools today. Stringent visitor policies, cameras, and locked doors are increasingly typical in elementary schools, as schools react to concerns about school shootings or other threats to students. One particularly striking difference is in the placement of law enforcement in school, most commonly called school resource officers or SROs. In 1997, only 3% of elementary schools had an SRO but over a third of elementary schools had an SRO by 2016. Some reports indicate SROs could be even more popular after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in 2022.

Having not experienced having an SRO in elementary school and potentially never attending a school with an SRO, parents are likely confused about what SROs are doing in their children’s elementary schools. After all, young children are unlikely to engage in the kinds of behavior that SROs manage in high schools (e.g., drug use) and some behaviors that are unlawful for adolescents are considered more age-appropriate behavior to be managed by teachers in elementary (e.g., physical fights). Even if parents assume SROs are in school to prevent school shootings, these incidents are much less common in elementary schools.

We set out to answer this question about the activities and impacts of SROs in elementary schools in a research project with two school districts that placed SROs in all elementary schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. In some ways, our answer to this question was simple, yet surprising: SROs are doing everything and touching seemingly all aspects of the school (published version here, accepted version here).

Keep in mind, SROs are highly trained and well-compensated members of law enforcement. While they might technically be there to focus on security, there are few security threats to address and almost no law enforcement activities to be done in elementary schools. So, SROs have time and want to be helpful. Teachers and school staff are infamously pressed for time, constantly feeling like they cannot get everything done that they need to. Most principals and assistant principals we spoke with are thrilled that the SRO has time to help.

We observed SROs taking on many activities that were seemingly innocuous like delivering messages to classrooms from the office, helping children out of cars during drop off in the morning, or reminding students to walk in the hallway. However, we also found some concerning trends in surveys we distributed to students, parents, teachers, assistant principals, principals, and SROs. First, SROs were more enthusiastic about their positive effect on students than the students themselves. SROs all reported that they made students feel much safer at school while students were more neutral on this question, and SROs were more likely than students to see themselves as students’ mentors and confidants. Second, SROs downplayed their involvement in student discipline – responding that they did not handle student behavior or disciplinary incidents. But teachers reported that they did observe SROs taking part in student discipline.

Why do we care if SROs are really involved in elementary schools while overstating their positive influence and downplaying their role in student discipline? First, high quality research that identifies the impact of SROs in secondary schools has found they increase exclusionary punishments like suspension, particularly for students who identify racially as Black. Suspensions can have tremendously negative implications for youth academically and behaviorally including lower grades and higher likelihood of incarceration. The idea that SROs can have particularly negative effects on students of color should alarm any parent committed to racial equity and having a welcoming school environment for all students.

Second, SROs are typically placed in schools to prevent shootings, but we have no evidence that SROs successfully do so. In fact, research suggests that SROs do not lower the risk of gun violence, at best, and potentially exacerbate the risk of school shootings. SROs all carry firearms, potentially leading any potential shooter to target schools with SROs (e.g., if the shooter is suicidal, which most school shooters are) or come more heavily armed, a phenomenon known as the weapons effect. Even discounting the negative evidence on SROs, they are very expensive. If schools really just need an extra set of hands, then it is more cost effective to hire another staff member to help with those tasks the SRO is picking up in their (ample) free time.

So, what are members of law enforcement doing when they are stationed at elementary schools? Potentially, a great deal, with some principals and assistant principals we talked to going as far as saying the SROs are like a “third administrator” in their school. While principals likely appreciate that SROs are helping out in a time-strapped environment, we have little reason to believe students are benefitting from this arrangement, and students of color (particularly Black students) especially stand to be disadvantaged by an SRO being at their school. Our research encourages parents and community members to be skeptical whenever an SRO or principal advocates for the continued presence of SROs in elementary schools.

Samantha Viano is an Assistant Professor of Education at George Mason University. Her research critically examines endemic challenges in PreK-12 schools and the policies schools adopt in response including research on school safety and security, teacher mobility, and online credit recovery. You can learn more about her research at her website and follow her on Twitter @DrSamViano or Bluesky