Police in Schools:
Student Perceptions of School Resource Officers
Focus Group with SYPP Members
SYPP began this study with two focus groups—composed of ten female students, all SYPP members from five greater Seattle area schools. The students were enrolled in the 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grade and came from Garfield High School, Franklin High School, Chief Sealth International High School, Ingraham High School, and Kenmore Junior High School. The focus group’s primary topic was student attitudes about having a police officer, usually called a school resource officer (SRO), assigned to their school. The discussion was not overly formal, and students were encouraged by the focus group facilitators, two law students from the University of Washington, to respond to and ask each other questions.
Beyond the call of duty?
Overall, most students in the focus groups agreed that SROs tend to go beyond their safety and disciplinary duties and establish their authority by intimidating and harassing some students. This harassment was most commonly described as being unsolicited comments, usually about a student’s clothing or appearance, but sometimes about a student’s academic performance.
Student opinion was fractured on whether this was an acceptable trade-off, given the benefits of having a police officer for campus safety. Some believed that SROs made schools safer and that behavior was unsavory but not excessively negative; roughly half of the focus group participants believed SRO behavior impugned students’ sense of self-worth and made them more likely to lash out against the SRO or school officials, particularly when SROs searched students who hadn’t done anything wrong.
Searching students for evidence of wrongdoing, along with the harassing comments, were viewed by most focus group members as a way for SROs to intimidate students. K.B., a 12th grade female student, noted that the SRO at her school “judges me” and is “intimidating” whenever they speak. Last year, K.B. was searched for marijuana possession after she left school grounds during lunch (allowed by her school during lunch hours) and walked past a popular off-campus gathering place for students. According to K.B., the SRO didn’t have grounds for a search and simply searched her because she was walking by a place where students sometimes gather to smoke tobacco or marijuana. The search turned up nothing, but the SRO nevertheless told her that he would arrest her if he “ever [saw her] in that area again.”
K.A., a 10th grade student, and K.B. both felt SROs profiled them based on the disciplinary history of their older brothers, who the SROs were familiar with. On one occasion, an SRO told K.B. that she “would probably drop out just like her brother.” K.A. noted that SROs “constantly bug” her about things on account of her brother’s problems. K.A. and K.B. experienced this treatment from their first day at that school, before they were given a chance to establish a reputation for themselves, because their SROs recognized their last names. Other students felt “watched,” while those who attended Garfield High School reported unwarranted sweeps of all students’ lockers. These accounts document a culture of intimidation and harassment for certain students that focus group members considered counterproductive to scholastic and social growth.
Some students felt that SROs provided a sense of safety despite the negatives. M.A., a 10th grade student, noted that “we need SROs there because there’s so many kids, even if they might take things too far sometimes.” Others felt that the intimidation and harassment overrode any feeling of added safety, and had little respect for school principals and vice-principals who “stay in their offices all the time” so that the SRO would handle all disciplinary matters. K.B., who had been searched to no avail, noted that the way she was treated made her feel like “maybe [she] should have smoked that joint.” M.B., a 9th grader, echoed these sentiments when she noted that when SROs targeted her, she found herself wanting to actually break the rules whe was falsely accused of violating. These statements indicate that many students internalize SRO harassment and “live down” to incorrect SRO judgments about their character. In the final analysis, this behavior poisons the school environment by lowering student self-esteem and encouraging students to pay the harassment forward by taking out anxiety on other students.
November 2011 Student Survey on SROs
Immediately following the focus groups, participants worked with University of Washington law students (maybe call us focus group coordinators?) from the Race and Justice Clinic to refine questions for a survey of a wider group of students. The survey, conducted informally but with close attention to neutral question structure, consisted of 9 questions about how visible SROs are at school, how much contact students have with them, and students’ reactions to both SRO contact and SRO presence overall. This report only focuses on the most significant results, but all results can be seen in the datasheet.
SYPP members administered the survey at their respective high schools; participants were randomly selected, with administrators distributing their surveys to an entire class at a time. This yielded 102 responses from students at five Seattle and greater King County area schools. Because the survey was administered in classrooms, all survey participants were actively enrolled at school (that is, none were on suspension or expulsion at the time). Survey participants were in grades 9 through 12 as below:
The survey revealed a few key themes:
- SRO Visibility: Students of color, particularly, African-American students, were generally more likely to see their SROs during the school day
- In contrast to this, students from Asian backgrounds were by far the least likely to see or interact with their SRO
- SRO Contact: Most close interactions with SROs (being questioned or searched) were negative experiences for the students involved
- SRO Searches: Being searched by a police officer assigned to school was a universally negative experience for the students involved; in the comments section, many added that the search discovered nothing
- Comfort at School: Almost 27% of students reported they were either more likely or less likely to attend school due to the SRO being present there.
- About 14% of the total survey population were less likely to want to go to school, and these students had high levels of contact (seeing, being questioned by, or being searched by the SRO)
- About 13% were more likely to attend school due to SRO presence; most of these students saw their SRO regularly, but had very few interactions with the SRO
Questioning by SROs
Students were asked whether they had ever been questioned by their SRO and, if so, how the experience made them feel. This included any type of questioning, and so included students who had been questioned as suspects, victims, or witnesses.
- Students from most racial/ethnic groups were questioned at proportional rates.
- The exception was students of Asian backgrounds, who comprised were questioned much less than any other group.
- Males and females were questioned at relatively equal rates.
Search by SROs
As with being questioned by the SRO, students were asked whether they had been searched and, if so, how the search made them feel.
- Every student who had been searched felt it was a very negative experience, with some checking that they felt harassed or intimidated, and others writing in descriptions of the negative experience.
- Students from most racial/ethnic groups were searched at proportional rates.
- As with being questioned, Asian students had much less contact with SROs: no Asian students reported having been searched
- Males were considerably more likely to be searched than females.
Reason for Search
Students who had been searched were also asked whether they were given any reason or explanation for being searched:
- This matched the information gathered from the focus group: students, were usually only told to hand over their bag so that the SRO could search it; after nothing was discovered, which was overwhelmingly the case among focus group participants, the students were told to be on their way with no further explanation of what the SRO was looking for or what they had been doing that led to the search.
- Students in the focus group who had been searched but not given any explanation generally had no serious disciplinary history; because of this, and because they were not told why the search was happening, several assumed it was because of their race or ethnicity.
Which Students SROs Focus On
All students were asked whether they thought their SRO focused more on certain students than others. Those who answered yes were also asked to write in why they thought the SRO focused on those students.
Reaction to Having an SRO at School
One of the key questions on the survey asked whether having an SRO assigned to their school made students more or less likely to attend school; those surveys that answered “Less likely” were then compared to other questions to see what may have led students to give this response.
- Out of those students who answered “Less likely”:
- Nearly all – 13 students out of 14 – knew another student who had been questioned or searched by an SRO
- A majority – 8 students out 14 – had been searched and questioned by an SRO
- A large majority – 11 students out of 14 – knew another student who had been suspended, expelled, changed schools, or dropped out because of an interaction with an SRO
- In general, these students had a much higher degree of contact with SROs than all students combined
- The students who answered “More likely” had less contact with SROs: only 1 out of 13 students who answered this way had been questioned by an SRO, and none had ever been searched.
- We can infer that students benefit most from an SRO who they see around school regularly, but do not closely interact with: they feel more secure at school because they know the SRO is on hand for any serious incidents, but don’t feel like they’re being unfairly targeted or picked on. Regular SRO interaction was not viewed as rapport-building by students, but as harassment.
- Students are usually searched without being given a reason; even when the search turns up nothing, no explanation or apology is offered. This tends to make students resent their SRO, and can be particularly harmful in that students who don’t break the rules begin to see their SRO as someone who is out to get them.
- Students in the focus group tended to have more of a problem with an SRO’s actions than the mere presence of an SRO on campus. Many appreciated having a police officer around for safety, but questioned the decisions that SROs made to search or repeatedly talk to certain students.
- Being searched by an SRO, especially when the student has done nothing wrong and has no contraband, can be tremendously damaging to both that student’s level of comfort at school and the SRO’s reputation and effectiveness in working with the student population.
 Quotes from focus group members use only the student’s first initial for anonymity reasons; since several student had the same initials, a second initial was used while recording their quotes to distinguish between them.
 The schools surveyed were: Garfield High School, Franklin High School, Ingraham High School, Chief Sealth International High School, and Kenmore Junior High School.