by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The tragic murder of nineteen students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has reignited debates about policing, gun control, mental health, and school safety. As elected officials mull additional restrictions on firearms purchases, questions about the best ways to keep children safe in schools remain.
We in North Carolina are fortunate to live in a state that has substantially improved its school safety infrastructure over the last decade. According to North Carolina House Republicans, lawmakers have approved over $500 million in school safety funding since 2013. This included nearly $300 million for school resource officers and $76 million for student mental health support, plus millions of dollars in new spending for equipment, training, and physical security measures to ensure that public schools have the resources needed to keep children safe during the school day.
Resources are also available from the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools, housed at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Gov. Pat McCrory established the center in 2013 to disseminate information and offer training and support to public schools throughout the state. Later that year, McCrory issued an executive order establishing the Center for Safer Schools Task Force. This 25-person task force maintains working groups focused on school climate and discipline, mental health, substance use, physical security and emergency preparedness, school resource officers, and gang intervention.
Of course, state-level investments of money and staff are only effective when school officials implement sensible security measures locally, including external cameras, door locks, and, most importantly, school resource officers (SROs). A 2021 report by the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center concluded that SROs play an essential role in preventing school violence. The authors found, “In nearly one-third of the cases, an SRO played a role in either reporting the plot or responding to a report made by someone else.”
State regulations define an SRO as “any law enforcement officer assigned to one or more public schools within a local school administrative unit” that assists with school safety, security, emergency preparedness, and emergency response. As such, SROs are far more than law enforcement officers. They are counselors, mentors, and key collaborators in the educational process.
Most of the district schools in the state employ an SRO. Katie Dukes’ 2021 Duke University master’s degree project, “The Prevalence of School Resource Officers in North Carolina’s Public Schools,” is a helpful assessment of the distribution of SROs in school districts across the state. With 95 of 115 school districts responding to her survey, Dukes found,
Approximately 79 percent of schools — serving 84 percent of North Carolina’s students — have SROs assigned on at least a rotating basis. It can be said with certainty that between 62 and 84 percent [of] schools — serving between 66 and 87 percent of students — have SROs. Almost all middle and high schools have SROs assigned, along with two-thirds of elementary schools.
While there were differences in school resource officer prevalence by race and absenteeism, Dukes found no significant differences in SRO coverage by free or reduced lunch eligibility, a standard proxy for economic disadvantage.
Elected officials from both sides of the aisle support increasing state spending on school safety to ensure that all schools have access to well-trained SROs. As mentioned above, Republican lawmakers have made substantial investments in school resource officer recruitment, retention, and training. Gov. Roy Cooper’s Crime Commission Special Committee on School Shootings recommended that the General Assembly provide funding “for an SRO position with equipment to be assigned to each school in North Carolina.” In addition, the commission’s 2019 report urged the state to provide all SROs with enhanced mental health training, active shooter response training, and threat assessment instruction.
This political consensus has not deterred left-wing academics and activists who continue to oppose the presence of SROs in public schools. Organizations such as the Education Justice Alliance and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice support “an immediate end of all school policing contracts with local law enforcement agencies and greater investments in alternatives to school policing.” Their hostility toward school resource officers is partly an extension of their deep distrust of traditional law enforcement.
Despite the objections of anti-police groups, citizens overwhelmingly support the continued employment of school resources officers. When the Wake County Black Student Coalition insisted that school board members defund SRO positions in Wake County Schools, the district administered surveys to gauge community sentiment. In a survey administered in March 2021, 75% of respondents favored SROs, 16% did not, and 9% were unsure. These results mirror a similar survey conducted by the district a year earlier.
While political sentiment and public opinion appear to be on the side of SROs, empirical research fails to offer definitive answers. As Education Week pointed out, simple studies that attempt to establish statistical relationships between SROs and behavioral outcomes may discount institutional factors and the complexities of school culture. I do not believe that the lack of consensus in the research literature is a sufficient reason to reverse course. Instead, elected officials should continue to focus on employing outstanding school resource officers for all North Carolina public schools.