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In wake of school shootings, new report seeks to shed light on role of school police

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Twenty-one weeks into this year, there had been 23 school shootings nationwide in 2018 – an average of more than one per week – injuring and killing dozens of students and faculty. The sobering statistic has reignited the debate about gun control, but it has also drawn more scrutiny to how schools approach safety issues.

Much of the discussion is focused on school resource officers and school police officers – some people want more officers in schools, and others don’t want any at all. But few know much about the men and women tasked with keeping schools safe.

In response to this, Education Week issued a report on school police officers, the first of its kind. Based on results from an online survey of about 400 officers from across the nation, the report provided insight into the officers’ demographics, experience, morale, and training.

This was a national study. Findings include:

  • The typical school police officer who responded is a 48-year-old white male who has 19 years of law enforcement experience.
  • 93 percent of school police officers who responded carry guns.
  • 73 percent receive mental health training.
  • 39 percent receive child trauma training.
  • 58 percent of respondents report having good morale at work.

Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, said the survey is helpful, but that it doesn’t give the whole picture of the role of school police officers.

Kupchik said that school police can be useful in schools where violence obstructs learning, but that this description doesn’t apply to most schools.

In Philadelphia, school policing has been a point of contention for years between the District and education advocates. Many, like Kupchik, feel that resources devoted to school police would be better used elsewhere.

“When we train police officers in how to act in productive ways with students … that’s a good thing,” said Kupchik. “However, it’d be a better fit if it went to someone whose work is based on that, like trained counselors.”

Some districts may soon have this option. Recently, Gov. Wolf signed a new Pennsylvania budget that sets aside $60 million in grants for districts statewide to put toward school safety measures.

The grant program will give schools the option to invest in school personnel, such as psychologists or police, and programs or equipment aimed at improving school safety and addressing violence and trauma.

District spokesman Lee Whack said that school safety and school police can be difficult issues, but that protecting students is the priority.

“[School police] are important partners for us in the work they do to keep us safe,” said Whack. “We’re focused on putting people in place, systems in place, policy in place to keep our students safe.”

The Philadelphia Student Union has complained about school police behavior, especially after an incident at Ben Franklin High School. Two years ago, a student on his way to the bathroom without a hall pass got into a physical altercation with a school police officer that was caught on tape. The PSU and other groups want “divestment in school police and the investment in school counselors” to promote safety for students.

Whack said that school police officers receive training in defusing situations related to “safety care training, mental health, and first aid.” Training also includes trauma awareness.

Experience with students and children isn’t required, but it is considered. “Potential candidates should demonstrate an ability to gain the confidence and respect of students and faculty and work with large groups of students, among various other abilities. Also, our training covers how best to address situations with the minors we serve.”

And although it is typical for school police across the nation to have law enforcement experience, the District only requires a high school diploma, a driver’s license, completion of four weeks of training, and 24 additional hours of training annually. The District’s school police are not armed.