Essay Unequal Exposure to School Resource Officers, by Student Race, Ethnicity, and Income
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An Essay for the Learning Curve
Sagen Kidane, Emily Rauscher
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The presence of school resource officers (SROs) and law enforcement in schools is directly related to the number of student offenses reported for misbehaviors, and SROs are much more likely to be present in schools serving Black and Latinx students. Prior research has focused on the disproportionate impact of school discipline on Black and Latinx students and found that schools with high concentrations of minoritized students are more likely to discipline Black and Latinx students, even where they behave similarly to white students. But we know less about how the presence of police in schools varies by race, ethnicity, and income. Data on student race, ethnicity, and economic background can show which types of schools are more likely to have an SRO, with implications for which types of students are more likely to encounter an SRO.

Key Data

Using 2017–18 school-level data from the Civil Rights Data Collection, findings show the following:

  • Schools where Black or Latinx students make up at least 80 percent of the students are more likely to have an SRO present on school grounds compared with schools with high concentrations of white students, regardless of income level.
  • Thirty-four to 37 percent of schools with high concentrations of Black or Latinx students have SROs present, compared with 5 to 11 percent of predominantly white schools.
  • Five percent of lower-income schools with high proportions of white students have an SRO, compared with 11 percent of higher-income predominantly white schools.

Implications

Other factors could explain the disproportionate presence of SROs, including urbanicity, state policy, and income differences. But these differences are unlikely to explain the starkly unequal exposure that Black and Latinx students have to SROs. Exposure is particularly troubling for those attending low-income schools, which often have fewer resources and higher discipline rates. During the 2017–18 school year, Black students represented 15 percent of enrolled students but made up more than 30 percent of students who experienced a suspension, expulsion, or school arrest. This removal from the classroom can affect outcomes in academic achievement and school motivation.

District administrators, school boards, and finance officers should draw on the available evidence as they consider whether they need an SRO, whether they are assigning officers fairly across schools, and how they could use funds saved from SROs for other purposes, such as hiring more support staff. For example, some districts have considered hiring social workers and school psychologists to improve school safety and student well-being. Learning which types of spending are most beneficial for which types of students will help districts direct funds in ways that reduce rather than exacerbate racial inequities.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy