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UD Prof. Aaron Kupchik says there is no
consistent research showing that having police officers (often called
school resource officers) in school buildings prevents student crime.
nation’s growing awareness of systemic racism and the deaths of Black
men and women at the hands of police, many communities are reconsidering
their policy of assigning officers to school buildings and questioning
whether those salaries would be better spent—and more helpful to
students—on counselors or social workers.
For social scientists like the University of Delaware’s Aaron
Kupchik, this is not a new idea. He and other researchers have been
studying the issue and raising these same questions for decades.
All those studies have found little evidence that stationing a police
officer in a school helps to reduce or prevent crime and, instead, have
found that more problems often are created, said Kupchik, professor of sociology and criminal justice.
Now, as educators and policy makers
begin examining the subject of whether and how police, often known as
school resource officers (SROs) are deployed, he hopes their discussions
and decisions will also be guided by the research.
"There is no consistent research showing that SROs are able to
prevent student crime, or even school shootings,” Kupchik said. “Most
high-quality studies show either no effect or that the presence of an
SRO is associated with more student crime and misbehavior."
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Prof. Aaron Kupchik studies the policing and punishment of juveniles in schools, courts and correctional facilities.
Schools and communities often argue that having an officer in a
school provides students with an additional responsible adult who can
listen to their concerns and help deal with problems. Most SROs are
caring and professional, Kupchik said, but they are not trained
counselors and are routinely expected to handle situations that are
outside their experience and training.
“Police in schools are asked to do so much that’s not about law
enforcement, things that could be much better handled by social workers
or counselors trained in child development,” he said. “I’m certainly in
favor of having schools provide trusted adults, but that person does not
have to be a law enforcement officer.
“In fact, national studies show that students are less likely to take
concerns to a police officer than to some other adult in a school,
especially because an officer can’t treat information — such as a
student’s concern about a friend’s possible drug use — as confidential.”
Kupchik cited findings from rigorous research studies, including:
When a police officer is on site, there’s a greater chance of students
being arrested, even for relatively minor incidents. As an illustration,
in one school where Kupchik did research, he found that when two
students fought, both were routinely arrested, even if one was, for
example, a target of bullying or victimized in other ways.
And, especially important, he said, is that racial disparities — unintentional though they may be — occur widely.
“Across the board, in all situations where law enforcement steps in
at a school, there are clearly racial disparities,” he said. “Black
students are more likely to get arrested and more likely to face serious
No one is condoning misbehavior by students, but not all bad behavior
should result in a child or teen being put into the criminal justice
system, Kupchik said.
“This is such an amazing moment right now, with the calls for social
justice, even while it’s appalling that it took so many deaths to bring
this to widespread attention,” he said. “It’s great to see the
increasing awareness, and I hope that translates to policymakers paying
more attention to research and making thoughtful decisions.”
Kupchik, who joined the UD faculty in 2006, studies the policing and
punishment of juveniles in school, courts and correctional facilities.
His work has looked at the broad context of schools and punishment,
and identifying children’s behavior as criminal in relation to issues
including metal detectors and so-called zero tolerance policies in which
young students are often arrested for relatively minor offenses.
He has published six books, including The Real School Safety Problem: The long-term consequences of harsh school punishment and Judging Juveniles: Prosecuting adolescents in adult and juvenile courts.
His current work is focused on examining the relationship between
court-ordered desegregation and school punishment. School suspensions
began as a punishment in the 1960s, he said, and students of color are
disproportionately suspended from schools.
He has found that school districts that have been the subject of
court cases ordering desegregation are much more likely to have higher
rates of suspension of Black students, raising the question of whether
those schools are using suspension as a tool to resist desegregation.
Kupchik is also studying the legacy of racialized violence in schools and how that relates to desegregation.
Article by Ann Manser; photos by iStock
Published July 27, 2020