Ben Fields, who was caught on video assaulting a student at Spring Valley High School, was a sheriff's deputy in Richland County, South Carolina. But he wasn't in the Spring Valley classroom by accident: Before being placed on leave (and reportedly fired) as a result of the incident, he was a school resource officer tasked with securing school grounds — and who had the authority to arrest students.
Some of the responses to the Spring Valley incident have attacked school and local officials and the media for using the term "school resource officer," calling it a euphemism. That may be true, but it's also an official term — and a very real phenomenon. Thousands of law enforcement officers are stationed in American schools — and they're a key part of the "school-to-prison pipeline," which places students into the criminal justice system for matters of school discipline. Here are a few basic facts.
1) More than a quarter of public schools have a daily police presence
We don't know how many school resource officers there are in American schools. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics hasn't collected data from police departments on how many officers they have stationed as SROs since 2007, when there were about 13,000.
The more recent data on the prevalence of school resource officers comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, which surveys schools every two years about crime and safety. The NCES data doesn't distinguish between school resource officers — sworn police officers — and security guards hired by the school. Legally, that's an important distinction: SROs have the power to arrest students, while security guards don't. But security guards often play a role in student discipline, and they're frequently allowed to physically restrain students. In the kinds of schools where SROs can be most aggressive, security guards can be aggressive too.
In 2009-'10, 28.7 percent of public schools said they had a full-time school resource officer or security guard present on school grounds. In 2011-'12, the NCES didn't ask about school resource officers per se, but they did ask if schools had a "daily presence of police" or security personnel — and the answer was about the same: 28.1 percent of public schools reported they had a daily security presence.
2) The more nonwhite students a school has, the more likely it is to have a police presence
Whether they have a private security guard or a sworn police officer, the schools that are most likely to have a daily enforcement presence on school grounds are the schools with the most poor students. Schools where more than 75 percent of kids qualify for reduced lunch prices are much more likely than their peers to have someone on school grounds full-time.
Among other things, this indicates that there isn't a large share of private security guards being hired by affluent school districts to protect students' possessions; either school resource officers are more common than private security guards, or the two serve the same function.
Interestingly, for schools where fewer than 75 percent of students qualify for reduced-price lunch, there isn't a correlation between students' class and the presence of security. But there is a correlation among all public schools between students' race and the presence of an SRO or security guard. The more nonwhite students a school has, the more likely it is to have a full-time SRO or private security guard on campus.
It isn't as simple as saying that there's only one type of school that puts SROs on campus: urban, poor, overwhelmingly black (or black and Latino). There are clearly other factors that lead schools and law enforcement agencies to put cops on school grounds. But security officers are most likely to be in the poorest, least-white schools.
3) The biggest effect of school resource officers: Students get criminally charged for "disorderly conduct"
It's easy to assume that a school that has a police officer on the grounds every day must have such big issues with crime that the officer is necessary. But that isn't always the case.
A 2009 study by Matthew Theriot of the University of Tennessee compared student arrest and court records from one group of schools that had a school resource officer stationed on school grounds with those of schools that didn't. Controlling for socioeconomic status, the researcher found that there wasn't much difference in serious crime between the schools that had SROs and the schools that didn't. Students at policed schools were much more likely to get arrested than students at unpoliced schools, but they weren't any more likely to actually be charged in court for weapons, drugs, alcohol, or assault. (In other words, students at policed schools were much more likely to get arrested in cases where there wasn't enough evidence to actually charge them with a crime.)
The exception: Students at policed schools were almost five times as likely to face criminal charges for "disorderly conduct" (which apparently didn't rise to the level of an assault). In other words, when there was a police officer roaming the halls, students were much more likely to be arrested and brought into court for behavior that was disruptive, but not violent.
This is exactly the problem that's led some juvenile judges to speak out against putting police in schools. The chief judge of the juvenile court in Clayton County, Georgia, who's become an outspoken opponent of police in schools, saw that when police were placed on school grounds in his county, 11 times as many students ended up in juvenile court. He told Congress at a 2012 hearing that "the prosecutor’s attention was taken from the more difficult evidentiary and 'scary' cases — burglary, robberies, car thefts, aggravated assaults with weapons — to prosecuting kids that are not 'scary,' but made an adult mad."
This isn't just a bureaucratic problem of clogging up juvenile court. The reason the school-to-prison pipeline is an issue is that students are much less likely to succeed in school when they're in the grip of the juvenile justice system. If a school that agrees to put a police officer on its grounds is unknowingly agreeing to send some of its students to juvenile court for behavior they would never be prosecuted for if there weren't a cop in the hall to witness them, it's condemning at least some of those students to failure.