Central High School is a quiet place in the summer.
A visitor observes no students or teachers in the empty hallways. When the bustle of school activity resumes, the American Civil Liberties Union would like something else to be absent: police officers.
The organization’s Missouri chapter sent a letter to districts asking that school resource officers, known as SROs, be removed from schools amid a national re-evaluation of police policies. The ACLU of Missouri argues that a police presence enables negative interactions with minority students and that the money is better spent on counselors and social workers.
“The presence of SROs puts specific students at risk for falling into the school-to-prison pipeline and does not improve educational outcomes or public safety,” Luz María Henríquez, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, wrote in the letter.
That assessment is strongly disputed in St. Joseph, where voters in 2019 supported a 61-cent levy extension that included funding to add school resource officers, with the cost shared between the police and the school district. By the end of 2021, the St. Joseph School District expects to have an SRO in all three public high schools, all four middle schools and the alternative school. Another officer rotates among all the grade schools.
These officers aren’t necessarily there to make arrests, said Dr. Robert Sigrist, director of non-academic support and student services for the SJSD.
“There is a relationship piece and a mentoring piece that goes on,” Sigrist said. “School resource officers are not involved in discipline. They are not there to enforce school rules. We enforce school rules.”
Data from the St. Joseph Police Department shows that resource officers responded to 2,301 incidents during the 2019-20 school year, with 311 of those cases resulting in an arrest.
Sgt. James Langston, who oversees the SRO unit for the police department, said the only actual arrests would be for assault, drug possession or when a student is out of control and a parent cannot be located. The majority of the cases result in a juvenile referral, which Langston compared to a speeding ticket for an adult.
“It is interesting and noteworthy that our SROs responded to 1,990 incidents where an arrest was not made,” Langston said. “SROs were able to de-escalate the situation, which allowed the student to return to class.”
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tracks discipline incidents by school districts, although those are cases that might not involve police or arrest. DESE’s 2019 report, the latest available, recorded 166 incidents for the St. Joseph School District, including 47 for drugs, 16 for alcohol and seven involving a weapon.
Discipline and enforcement are only part of the equation for an SRO. Langston said a resource officer spends much of the school day walking the halls, talking to students and getting to know them. During the COVID-19 shutdown, one officer went to students’ homes to check on them.
“It’s good to see the human side of officers and get to know us,” Langston said. “All too often, on the streets, the only time someone sees the police is when they are having the very worst day of their life.”
The expansion of resource officers into middle schools is significant, Langston said, because that’s the age when some students start to engage in riskier behavior. He believes officers can play an essential role in getting those younger students on the right path.
“That’s the tipping point where they can make good choices or bad choices that affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
He said the overriding goal remains safety and security inside the school. The presence of an officer can have an impact sort of like a patrol car parked on the side of the highway. Just as motorists ease up on the gas when they see a police car, most students behave a little better when they know a uniformed officer is present.
But it’s not the everyday incidents but the mass shootings that have fueled an interest in SROs. Following the deadly school massacre in Parkland, Florida, the Missouri Governor’s School Safety Task Force recommended an armed resource officer in every school where it was economically feasible and supported by the local population.
Those concerns haven’t gone away.
“It’s always been one of those things where you don’t need it until you need it,” Sigrist said.