School Resource Officer (SRO) Programs are utilized by many police services in Ontario as collaborative, community-based initiatives to promote safe environments for members of educational communities. SRO programs allow police officers, typically assigned to one elementary or high school on a full-time basis, to conduct daily interactions with students and other members of an educational community. Some SRO models employ officers who serve a group of schools. SROs are also sometimes referred to as High School Liaison Officers (HSLO) or Youth Education Officers (YEOs). The interactions with students and other school community members range from preventing bullying and supporting crime prevention initiatives to mentoring and supporting students and promoting student well-being.
The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) has long supported the many SROs from police services across our province who give of their time and resources to supporting students and educators. Our annual award honouring one SRO officer in Ontario is a testament to our gratitude and admiration for the women and men in our police services who work hard to serve and make a difference in the lives of young people in our schools. However, our admiration and continued support for the many dedicated police officers in our schools does not mean that we do not listen to members of communities who have concerns about SRO programs. It is vital that as public servants, we take any concerns involving our efforts to better serve Ontarians seriously.
In June 2020, the OACP conducted research on SRO programs. Using keywords such as “school resource officer programs”, “SRO evaluations”, “police in schools”, etc., we searched peer-reviewed journal databases, databases that include social science Ph.D. and MA theses, and conducted open source searches for relevant grey literature (i.e., materials and research produced outside of traditional publishing channels that can include reports, policy literature, working papers, government documents, speeches, white papers, program evaluations, etc.). We also conducted specific searches for Canadian literature, though studies in this country are scant when compared to U.S.-based research.
The overwhelming majority of the literature reviewed – from both the U.S. and Canada – is descriptive and focuses on what SROs do (i.e., their roles and responsibilities) and/or on perceptions of SRO programs on the part of key stakeholders (based on surveys or interviews with principals, teachers, school staff, students, and parents). Most of these studies report “mixed” findings on SRO programming – that is, there appears to be some positive perceptions of SRO programs as well as negative perceptions – and most programming that has been examined in the literature (again, largely in a descriptive way) seems to produce a combination of both positive and not-so-positive outcomes. Very few studies actually conduct evaluations of the efficacy of SRO programming, so we don’t know definitively to what extent such programs achieve their intended goals or about barriers and facilitators of good programming.
There is also literature that applies critical race perspectives to the idea of police in schools, in general, and SRO programming, in particular. This is important and robust literature that consistently demonstrates, “the punitive and carceral atmosphere of schools” (Maynard, 2017, p. 220) that renders Black students especially vulnerable to criminalization by police in the school setting. Some researchers argue that SRO programs are part of the “school-to-prison pipeline” approach to young people and crime (specifically in relation to young people from marginalized communities) and also part of a growing trend toward the militarization of school environments resulting from having armed police present (Vitale, 2018, pp. 61, 64).
A major limitation in the literature identified through a critical race perspective is that the extant literature on SROs is “race-absent scholarship”; that is, rarely do these studies take race/ethnicity seriously as a variable of interest. The literature on SROs tends to take a “colour blind” approach to examining SRO programming that does not acknowledge or recognize the impact of systemic and other forms of racism on the experiences, perspectives, and educational outcomes of Black and other racialized students. This is, for example, a major criticism of a study done in Peel Region a few years ago.
Police leaders need more and better research that not only evaluates SRO programming, but one that also pays close attention to the needs and experiences of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) students.
The current state of the literature makes it difficult to justify SRO programming in schools, but not necessarily because the literature suggests it is not effective. There simply has not been enough research on this issue, particularly in the Canadian context, to make that claim.
It is time for police leaders to support evidence-based SRO research, particularly with respect to evaluation that places the experiences of BIPOC students front-and-centre.
July 20, 2020