After the tragic shooting in Newtown, some have proposed requiring schools to have armed police officers on site. But the best available research suggests that this idea should be resisted.
Here are seven reasons why we should not mandate armed police in all schools.
1. Schools are among the safest places for children despite these rare but deadly events.
2. Schools vary enormously in their risks and in what would be the most useful policies to address those risks. In many schools, armed officers are an expensive diversion of resources better used in other ways.
3. Schools cannot be isolated from their larger communities—and we cannot lock down entire communities, as I discussed in an earlier posting. In many cases, the costs of deploying armed officers at schools could be put to better use for preventing violence.
4. Policing in schools can lead to unnecessary arrests. Having police officers in schools—sometimes called School Resource Officers or SROs—can lead to the criminalization of minor student misbehavior, as illustrated in a recent New York Times report about SROs in Houston. When not used judiciously, police presence can generate unnecessary arrests, which clog up the courts and take students out of classes, to little benefit.
5. Growing evidence, as in some recent studies in Chicago, suggests that arresting youth disrupts their schooling, chances of graduating, and future employment options.
6. Sworn officers have complex and ill-defined role in schools. They generally report to police departments rather than to the schools. At times, their police roles put them in overt conflict with principals. Sometimes officers are able to help with student learning, but their law enforcement roles can also interfere with the school’s educational mission.
7. To date, we have no evidence that armed officers generally improve school safety. Instead, the evidence we do have demonstrates the enormous variability in how school resource officers function. This means that one-size-fits-all policies simply cannot be effective.
Does all this mean that schools should never hire armed officers? Of course not. But this decision needs to be a local one. The opportunity costs of placing armed officers in schools—that is, the resources needed to support them—are high. In many cases, school safety, community safety, and education are all better served by using those resources in other ways.
Photo by Flickr user gregorywass used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)