Police in schools: What the research shows

By Scott W. Henggeler

This commentary is provided in the context of recent increased community concerns about school safety and whether the placement of police officers at Mount Desert Island High School is an appropriate intervention for our community. As a clinical child psychologist and mental health services researcher with 40 years of experience developing and evaluating the effectiveness of treatments for youth with serious behavioral problems, I would like to share what I have learned.

Historically, research repeatedly has shown that juvenile justice interventions often result in outcomes that are the opposite of what was expected or intended. For example, most people would agree that youths who commit crimes need more structure and self-discipline in their lives. This perspective led to the proliferation of military-style boot camps in the 1990s designed to reduce delinquent behavior.

While this intervention would seem, at face value, to be harmless and well-suited for teaching teens to be more responsible, subsequent evaluations showed strikingly different results. That is, boot camp interventions actually increased youth antisocial behavior problems and did so at considerable financial cost.

Another example of beliefs that are commonly held by many well-intended citizens is that youths who commit crimes, juvenile offenders, would benefit from a stay in detention, residential treatment or other types of confinement to provide them with the intensive services that they need and/or for punishment – to teach them a lesson. Here, the results from research are crystal clear. Confinement increases youth criminal behavior, decreases education and employment outcomes, disrupts family relationships, deteriorates youth mental health and does all this at high cost.

For example, the average cost of four months of confinement is greater than the total expenses for a full year at the University of Maine with a leased Mercedes.

Likewise, less intensive interventions for behaviorally-disturbed teens are also commonly believed to be helpful to the youth and to support community safety. It seems logical that delinquent teens would benefit from ongoing monitoring and supervision from juvenile justice authorities. Again, well-researched findings are counterintuitive.

Rather than providing a public safety benefit, processing juvenile offenders through the system results in increased criminal behavior, especially when compared with diversion from the system and referral for family-based services. In other words, just the process of enrolling the youth in the juvenile justice system and assigning a probation officer increases the odds that the youth will later commit more crimes than a peer with the same criminal behavior diverted to mental health services.

In sum, entry into the juvenile justice system, on average, does more harm than good to the youth, his or her family, and the community. Hence, an implication of this extensive body of research is that communities should do everything possible to reduce adolescent entry into the juvenile justice system, unless absolutely necessary to protect public safety.

Clearly, community safety trumps youth welfare in certain instances, and certain types of crimes committed by adolescents should be addressed by the justice system. However, there is a consensus among stakeholders that our nation has gone overboard in the area of criminal justice – entangling many more individuals than necessary.

For example, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that only 37 percent of juvenile offenders in the most restrictive and expensive confinements had perpetrated crimes against people, whereas nearly 50 percent had committed property crimes, status offenses (e.g., running away), or technical violations (e.g., breaking curfew while on probation).

Within the context of the broad field of juvenile justice interventions, what are the outcomes associated with placing police officers (i.e., school resource officers) in schools? Are they as beneficial as predicted by proponents, or does the downside outweigh the positive? The Justice Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., has conducted a thorough and well-documented review that addresses these questions, and a summary of their conclusions and recommendations follows.

First, the presence of law enforcement in schools increases the probability that adolescents will enter the juvenile justice system for behaviors and minor offenses – e.g., disrupting class, schoolyard fight, stealing from a locker – that are traditionally handled by teachers, school administrators and families. As noted previously, entering the juvenile justice system increases the likelihood of negative outcomes such as re-arrest, school dropout, unemployment, emotional and family problems, and incarceration.

Second, school resource officers (SRO) are asked to play multiple roles –e.g., trusted mentor, law enforcement and counselor – that can be confusing and misleading to students. The officer is foremost accountable to the police department where he or she is employed. SROs are trained in law enforcement. They do not have degrees in social work or counseling.

Many students likely do not appreciate that communications with the SRO, in contrast with communications with their school counselor, are not confidential. Compromising information can be revealed about themselves, classmates or family members. Such information can be addressed very differently by professionals from mental health vs. law enforcement backgrounds.

Third, schools don’t need SROs to be safe. School violence and theft are at their lowest levels in 20 years, and the presence of SROs is unrelated to this downward trend. Indeed, the key factors that support safe schools pertain to characteristics of the school and of the community in which the school is embedded. Safe schools are more likely to have high structure with well-defined and fair rules that are consistently enforced, and supportive and caring teachers and administrative staff. Safe schools are created primarily by the quality of the relationships among students, staff and parents; not by the presence of an SRO.

Fourth, there are more effective strategies at promoting safety in schools than engaging SROs, and resources should be invested in these strategies if school safety is an issue. Such strategies include, for example, providing support and training to staff regarding behavior management, hiring well-trained counselors, building relationships between staff and parents and implementing evidence-based initiatives – i.e., structured interventions that have proven effective in rigorous research – please see www.blueprintsprograms.com for descriptions of evidence-based interventions for violence prevention.

Finally, I have attempted to sketch an accurate overview of the state of juvenile justice interventions in our nation and of the conclusions of a leading policy institute regarding the presence of police in schools. That said, I am very thankful to be living in a community where both the school and law enforcement systems are of the highest quality.

Our family moved to MDI six years ago, in part, to take advantage of a superb high school, and we have not been disappointed. Similarly, we have been impressed by local law enforcement’s restrained and reasoned response to adolescent misbehavior, as well as their commitment to community policing. This a great place to live, largely due to the sense of community on the island and our shared role in maintaining those links. I hope that by sharing my professional experience, I can contribute to the conversation about this important issue that affects some of the island’s most vulnerable and important members, our children.

Scott W. Henggeler of Bar Harbor is a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

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