A survey of high school students across Virginia found that school resource officers make most feel safer.
The results of the annual secondary school climate survey come as school districts locally and across the country are reevaluating the role of police on school grounds. Last month, the Charlottesville School Board ended its agreement with the city police department for school resource officers, and the Albemarle board approved a resolution directing the superintendent to recommend other school safety options beyond the officers.
Although 70% in the state survey agreed that the officers make them feel safer, the views were more nuanced when broken down by race and ethnicity.
About 32.5% of Black students disagreed or strongly disagreed that SROs make them feel safe, compared with about 25% of white students, according to a news release from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development. More than 106,000 students from 299 high schools participated.
The wide-ranging survey included two questions about SROs.
The annual School Safety Audit includes surveys of middle and high schools in alternate years. The Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety administered the survey, and the results were analyzed by the Youth Violence Project, a research team at the Curry School. The survey was given to students before schools were closed in March.
Dewey Cornell, director of the Youth Violence Project and a professor at the Curry School, said it’s important for schools to look at their individual survey results to assess their SRO program and learn why students felt safer or didn’t.
“You have to really kind of unpack these results and realize that you know that there’s more going on than just the single question can reveal,” he said.
Cornell, an expert in school safety, said he was pleased to see overall positive results.
“I was pleased to see that the majority of students who are Black, Hispanic or Native American actually felt that the SRO has helped them feel safer. I just want to be very careful not to paint too broad a picture that assumes everybody feels the same way, or that everybody just had negative experiences. It looks like for most of our students, the SROs make them feel safer, and that’s a really good thing.
But, he added that he was surprised at how many students reported that the officers make them feel safer — “That is, we have kids who come to school who are worried about what might happen to them,” he said.
Locally, students at Albemarle, Monticello and Charlottesville High schools participated in the survey. The school-level results from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services were not broken down by race or ethnicity.
At Charlottesville High School, where 732 students took the survey, 70% agreed or strongly agreed that SROs make them feel safer at school. Half of the students who responded to the survey were white.
At Albemarle High School, 60% of respondents also agreed. Ninety-eight students took the survey, 52% of whom were white.
At Monticello High School, 70% of the 106 students who took the survey agreed. About 46% of the participating Monticello students were white.
Most of the students who took the survey said they had had little to no interaction with the officers.
An Albemarle County school division survey conducted last month found that 52.5% of students said school resource officers made them feel safe, while 17.8% disagreed. On another question, 14.3% of students said the officers’ presence made them feel uncomfortable, while 61.7% of students disagreed.
Cornell cautioned that the students’ answers on the state survey do not specify why they did or didn’t feel safer with the officers in school.
“It’s an open question as to why they disagreed and whether disagreeing means that they felt uncomfortable with the SROs,” he said.
For students who are troubled by the presence of a law enforcement officer, Cornell said that’s something that needs to be investigated.
“Is there an issue with that police officer in the school? Or has the student had some experiences with law enforcement that are upsetting and continue to have an impact on them? That should be an administrative issue that should be taken seriously,” he said.
Cornell sees value in having law enforcement trained in school procedures and working with students, especially on the threat assessment teams, which evaluate reported threats directed at school communities.
The threat assessment teams are mandatory in Virginia schools and also work to prevent violence by focusing on problems such as bullying and teasing that can escalate. The model was created in 2001 by Cornell and UVa researchers.
“We want an officer on those teams who’s had training in how the school handles threats,” he said. “Because if you bring in officers who are not trained in threat assessment, then they’re going to arrest a lot of these kids who are making threats that are not serious and that can be easily resolved.”
Studies from Cornell’s team have found that fewer than 1% of students who receive a threat assessment are arrested, he said.
“These are kids who are making threats to harm somebody,” he said. “If you had an officer taking a street approach, many of those kids would be in a lot more trouble and it would be handled very differently. So having officers trained in how to work with kids and how to use school procedures, I think, is really something we don’t want to lose.”
Cornell said an SRO program needs to be carefully defined and the officer needs to be carefully selected and trained to understand the school environment and to work with students.
“When it works well, I think it’s a great asset to the school,” he said. “But when it doesn’t work ... it’s a big problem for schools and for the kids.”
Cornell said his team is working to analyze the data further.
“We’re going to look at whether having the SRO in the school means that there are fewer kids or more kids suspended from school, whether there’s more or less bullying, whether teachers experience more aggressive behavior or less aggressive behavior from their students,” he said. “We’re going to dig into this, but, really, I think that is not going to get to the level that we really need at an individual school to decide whether your SRO is doing the kind of job that you want and need.”
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