In a recent letter to Gov. Parson, State Auditor Nicole Galloway requested that a special session of the General Assembly be called to address the ever-present issue of school safety. Her concern is shared by many on both sides of the aisle. The worry that Missouri’s children could become victims of gun violence has been top-of-mind for many in government for awhile now, and in March of 2019, Gov. Parson set forth an executive order that established the Missouri School Safety Task Force, which was responsible for presenting research and recommendations around possible solutions.
Citing a report written by that task force, Auditor Galloway asked that the special session be used to fund and implement the placement of armed School Resource Officers in every Missouri school. School Resource Officers, or SROs, are individuals who are asked to act as a teacher, counselor, and law enforcement officer for a school in order to increase safety and improve students’ relationship with law enforcement.
If a decline in school safety is the problem, placing an armed SRO in each Missouri school is not the solution.
Although SROs have the potential to play a crucial role in responding to incidents of violence, the data does not show that they are useful in preventing those incidents or creating an overall feeling of safety in the school. A study by the Brookings Institute in November of 2018 showed that there was no discernible correlation between SROs and school safety. That same report also showed that while white male students often felt more safe with SROs on campus, female students and students of color felt less safe with an officer present. This may be because white men overwhelmingly dominate the ranks of SROs while non-white students make up the majority of public school enrollment.
Having SROs in school also changes the way that students are punished for infractions. When an SRO has authority over discipline, a student who acts out is more likely to face criminal charges rather than typical in-school punishment and guidance. In a state with a recidivism rate averaging around 60%, it is completely likely that a young person could spend their entire lives cycling in and out of the criminal justice system because of a minor offense committed while they are an adolescent. The entire trajectory of their life will be completely altered by a school resource officer’s decision to use criminal punitive measures for situations that could be handled in a myriad of non-criminal ways. The task force’s report explicitly mentions the importance of diverting youth from the justice system. SROs in schools do the exact opposite.
Also absent from the Auditor’s letter was any mention of the many other suggestions made by the Task Force. Their mandated report concluded that mental health services, not school resource officers, should be one of the highest priorities in handling school safety. This priority, however, is also not properly addressed by the presence of armed SROs.
This is not the fault of the officers themselves. Expecting one individual person to be responsible for the physical safety, mental health, and overall well being of an entire student body is too great an ask of any one individual, especially a retired officer – one of the most likely candidates to become an SRO. It is also a bad model on its face. Can you imagine sending your child to a counselor who has a gun on their hip and the ability to arrest? That does not create for the type of open environment that is necessary for children to fully express their issues and find help resolving them. This is paired with the fact that over 50% of Missouri schools have no formal behavioral risk assessment team. One SRO is not able to properly assess the mental health of every student.
The report puts the highest emphasis, however, on an increased level of communication across all platforms. The belief is that better communication can lead to an environment of prevention which, the report states, is “preferred over preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts.” Instead of only having the tools in place to respond to an attack on children’s safety, the Task Force wants the state of Missouri to be equipped to prevent the attack in the first place. This is a massive and difficult task, since over 80% of schools in Missouri have not conducted a vulnerability or hazards risk assessment similar to the one used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to the task force report. We cannot prevent attacks if we don’t know where our vulnerabilities lie.
Missouri also currently has no formally recognized state-level school safety coordination center or state school safety center. Multiple other states have adopted this model to facilitate the rapid sharing of information. This center could be the central hub for communication and formalization of risk analysis and assessment.
Listed above are only a few of the other suggestions made by the task force. If the Auditor truly wants to increase safety in Missouri’s schools, putting an armed SRO in every school cannot work if implemented alone. And Gov. Parson must see that multiple recommendations in the report have funding by offering budget line items when he presents his budget proposal in January, 2020. We need our elected officials to fully digest and understand the task force’s report and suggestions, and implement a strategic plan that includes many different elements that work in tandem – not one that relies on SRO’s, a singular solution that has already proven to be almost completely ineffective.
This post originally ran in our September Newsletter, which you can find here.