In recent discussions about the future of policing in the United States, the need for an armed School Resource Officer (SRO) on campuses has been a frequent topic of debate. Many worry about the presence of a police officer on campus, citing concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as the possibility of creating an unsafe environment for students of color, who have seen the damage law enforcement has done time and time again to people who look like them. Local school districts have taken action moving away from the SRO, with Oakland Unified School District unanimously voting to terminate its police force, and the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board passing a resolution to begin the process of removing the SRO from Berkeley High School (BHS).
Despite the concerns raised by critics of the position, this resolution was a step in the wrong direction. BHS should continue to have a law enforcement officer stationed on campus, because as long as crime is committed by and to high school students, police will be involved at BHS in some capacity, and the SRO is a far better option than the alternative. Additionally, without the SRO, BHS would have worse security in the case of a violent intruder, which would pose a safety risk to the school.
Currently, BHS works with local law enforcement by having one SRO, Officer Geoffrey Mitchell, stationed on campus. The SRO does not deal with violations of school rules, but rather criminal acts. This means that the SRO does not have the power to suspend or expel a student, but does have the authority to arrest, as well as the discretion not to. The fact that BHS’s SRO does not get involved in disciplinary issues is important, as this is one of the most cited causes for the school-to-prison pipeline. The SRO aims to help students, both as victims of crimes off or on campus, and as perpetrators of crimes, by providing a more thoughtful and nuanced avenue that works alongside BHS administration to ensure the student gets on the right track.
The arguments that having a police officer on campus will perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and create an uncomfortable and unsafe environment for students of color are valid concerns. However, the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) will continue to be involved at BHS whether the SRO is removed or not, as officers respond to reports of crime and aim to find solutions to events involving students that have transpired. The SRO, as opposed to beat cops — officers who respond to service calls — was chosen by the department as the best to work with students, and receives specialized training on how to work with and in schools. This means that the SRO is far better equipped to deal with criminal issues involving high school students than the cops who would likely be responding if the SRO was removed. In addition, having the same officer on campus at all times allows for students to build rapport with the SRO, meaning they are more likely to be seen as someone with a familiar face who can be trusted, as opposed to an intimidating stranger behind the wall of a badge and a gun.
Removing the SRO from campus also makes BHS less safe. Most, if not all high school students are aware of the growing threat of school shootings: from 2016 to 2019, incidents of gunfire on school campuses rose each year, growing from 61 to 130, according to Everytown’s database. In many of these cases, an SRO did or would have proved useful, due to their access to the lethal force that may have been necessary to prevent lives being lost.
Even in cases where lethal force is not necessary, an SRO is better suited to deal with such situations, since as a police officer, they will have been trained in many other tactics to deal with a violent intruder, from less lethal force to deescalation. Teachers, students, and even campus security guards are almost certainly not familiar with these methods, and therefore would not be well equipped to remove the threat on their own. It is important to recognize that if the SRO was removed and BHS was attacked, law enforcement would still respond to the event, and would hopefully be able to interrupt the threat to the school. However, the presence of a police officer on campus provides a faster response to such an attack, which could prove vital in the case of a sudden violent event.
One argument made against the SRO is that removing the position would help BUSD financially, as the money spent on the position could be used instead on higher salaries for teachers, more resources, and general improvements for Berkeley schools. However, the SRO position comes from the BPD budget, so this wouldn’t actually free up any funds for BUSD, as suggested by critics.
In fact, a two-year study conducted by Carleton University found that in the Regional Municipality of Peel, for every dollar invested in the local SRO program, at least $11.13 of economic and social value was produced. Among other reasons, this can be attributed to prevention of student injuries or death, less property damage to the school, lower odds that students will acquire a criminal record, and fewer 911 calls from schools.While it is more important now than ever to examine the issues of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in relation to our country’s youth, removing the SRO from BHS will not fix these problems. Instead, it would likely lead to the usage of a worse alternative, one that would take away the benefits the SRO adds to BHS while simultaneously heightening the problems with a police presence on campus.