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Defunding School Police Officers: A Back-to-School Experiment

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Linda-Marie Sundstrom & Mark Kling
September 15, 2021

In Fall 2021, students across the country returned to school after more than a year of COVID-19 lockdowns and remote learning. With the proliferation of COVID-19 vaccines, students, parents and teachers are feeling safer returning to in-person, K-12 on-campus learning. Many returning students and parents were not aware that School Resource Officers (SROs) were no longer part of many campus communities. SROs have been a mainstay in public schools for decades, but that is quickly changing. Due to the recent Defund the Police movement, calls for school boards to eliminate SROs from school campuses began to occur in January 2021. Will the movement to eliminate school police create safer schools, or will it put returning students’ safety at risk?

What is an SRO?

SROs are specialized officers who have substantial law enforcement experience and are knowledgeable about the community and students, along with possessing a desire to help youth. SROs undergo mandatory training before placement in schools which includes mentoring, teaching, creating partnerships and building relationships.

Movement to Eliminate SROs from Schools

In the beginning of 2021, vocal community and student-led groups petitioned school boards across the country to eliminate SROs from campuses, despite opposing groups objecting to the cuts. Common concerns from petitioners were that students felt unsafe with an armed officer on campus. The petitioners perceived SROs as authoritarian forces that targeted students. As a result of the vocal petitioners, many school districts eliminated officers.

Alternatives to SROs

Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District eliminated many school police officers and replaced them with, “Climate Coaches,” and, “Restorative Justice Advisors.”

Climate Coaches are trained in:

  • Implementing positive school culture and climate.
  • Building positive relationships.
  • Elevating student voices.
  • Eliminating racial disproportionality in school discipline practices.
  • Using effective de-escalation strategies to support conflict resolution.
  • Addressing implicit bias.

Restorative Justice Advisors empower students to resolve conflicts on their own. In a conflict, the affected parties come together to air their grievances. For example, if a student was assaulted by another student, the parties would come together to discuss their grievances. This provides an opportunity for students to make amends, and reintegrate into the classroom, rather than subjecting them to law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

SRO Insights

SROs are sworn officers who have knowledge and resources not available to school counselors. Violence occurring on campuses is not created in a silo. Off-campus conflicts often make their way on campus, and vice versa. Law enforcement is aware of both community and campus challenges. Knowledge of these community issues, combined with specific knowledge related to students on campus, allows the SROs to intervene and address tensions before they manifest into violence.

Reducing At-Risk Behaviors

Oftentimes, at-risk behaviors escalate on campus, and crimes become too dangerous for teachers, counselors, or administrators to resolve. When that occurs, a patrol officer is ultimately called to intervene. In this instance, students end up in the juvenile justice system without the benefit of addressing the behaviors earlier. In many schools, SROs act as intervention specialists—having the authority to write “infraction” non-criminal citations that do not go on a student’s record. These citations are a diversion opportunity requiring the student and parent to appear in front of a juvenile judge in court. The intent of these diversion programs is to educate students about potential consequences for inappropriate or dangerous behaviors in order to prevent at-risk behaviors from escalating.

Parent Reaction to Elimination of School Resource Officers (SROs)

Within the first few weeks of fall 2021 classes, there have been news reports of increased violence on school campuses across the country. For example, after the elimination of SROs, a 17-year-old student at a Santa Cruz high school in California died, after being stabbed on campus by two students. One day later, a 13-year-old middle school student displayed a knife during an altercation with a classmate. School administrators report increasing fights on campuses and parents are saying it is imperative the violence stops before another student is killed. With rising campus violence and the elimination of campus officers across the country, parent groups are now petitioning school boards to immediately reinstate SRO programs for their children’s safety.

Will School Resource Officers Be Reinstated?

Eliminating SROs across the country may need to be re-evaluated in the coming months. If violence continues escalating, school boards may need to act quickly to prevent further loss of life. However, it will not merely be a “flip-of-the-switch” to bring the SROs back to campus. The SROs who were eliminated were either dismissed from employment or transferred to other departments. To reallocate new SROs back into schools, it will require recruitment and training of additional officers, which may take most departments up to a year to complete. In the interim, open dialog between school board members, parents, students, advocacy groups and law enforcement should begin early in the school year to develop short-term safety plans and long-term solutions. Additionally, the parties should collectively determine whether to stay the course without campus SROs, or to reverse the decision and, once again, fund the reinstatement of campus officers.


Dr. Linda-Marie Sundstrom is a former Fulbright Scholar who taught Public Administration in Ukraine at a university under the Office of the Ukrainian President. She worked for two decades in local government and has taught in Master of Public Administration Programs for nearly two decades. She is currently the MPA Program Director for California Baptist University in Southern California. Email: [email protected]

Dr. Mark Kling has been in law enforcement for 34 years, 13 as police chief. He has taught both Public Administration and Criminal Justice courses for the past 20 years. He is currently the Criminal Justice Program Director for California Baptist University and came out of retirement to transition the Rialto Police Department to new innovative executive leadership. Email: [email protected] / [email protected]

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