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The Future of Policing in Schools

5 Steps to Cultivating Effective School Policing Programs

In 2019, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) responded to a congressional directive by conducting a comprehensive study on policing in schools in the United States. The objective was to evaluate the current role of police officers in schools and provide recommendations to improve their effectiveness in meeting students’ needs. To achieve this, the NIJ enlisted the expertise of myself and another consultant who extensively reviewed relevant literature and analyzed various data sources. Additionally, we facilitated four days of expert panel discussions and synthesized the findings from these data collection efforts.

The resulting report, School Policing Programs, Where We Have Been and Where We Need to Go Next, focuses solely on sworn officers within the United States and excludes consideration of school policing in other nations or the involvement of private security, retired military personnel or nonsworn police in schools. While I encourage you to read the full, 93-page comprehensive report, here are a few of the main takeaways, including five recommendations to support implementation and understanding as we move forward.

Where We Have Been and Where We Need to Go Next

Policing in schools is a complex topic that must be understood if it is to be effective. This report explores the history and future of policing in schools and how it can be utilized to improve school culture and student safety.
Read the Full Report Now

policing in schools report

Policing in Schools: Past and Present

Police did not suddenly arrive in schools during the 21st century. Instead, they have at least a half-century of history in schools. Although there may be many reasons why police have become more present in schools over time, at least one motivation is safety. High-casualty events like the Columbine massacre, regardless of how rare they are, have elevated fear and concern about the safety of students and staff. Such events have resulted in an increased focus on employing armed police to deter or respond to an active shooting incident. These events have also led to increased funding to provide schools with more access to police, regardless of the presidential administration. Despite the long history of school policing, data remain elusive, even to reliably estimate how many officers are in this position in the United States. This history is important to consider as we examine what roles officers take on and what impacts they have on students and their schools. It can also perhaps explain current elements of school policing programs and serve as a guide for how we may adjust programs in the future.

The history of school policing in the United States provides some insight as to how and why school policing programs are structured in specific ways. For instance, we can trace the school resource officer (SRO) model of school policing back to the 1960s. However, more recent ways of implementing school police (e.g., school-run departments) have expanded, according to research and those working in the field. As school policing (like policing in general) continues to go through adaptation, researchers and practitioners seek to implement characteristics of successful programs rather than deploy specific program models.

The implementation models, roles, activities, and duties of school officers are all largely dependent on the training that officers and others working within the school system receive. Researchers and practitioners alike agree that school policing is a specialized form of policing and therefore requires training specific to the work. Although some states now require additional training for school police, the extent of this training varies greatly.

Recommendations to Support Productive School Policing

Based on the extensive research conducted to support this study, the following five recommendations will continue to improve the understanding and implementation of policing programs in schools:

  1. Dedicate and sustain funding for the study of school policing programs to support targeted research to improve the existing knowledge base.
  2. Ensure that the most rigorous and appropriate research designs are being used in the study of school policing.
  3. Focus more, in both practice and research, on the selection of officers for school positions.
  4. Provide officers with training specific to working in schools, and to the duties and activities expected of that officer in that school.
  5. Implement and test a consistent set of implementation characteristics for setting up and operating school policing programs.

These recommendations are designed to help federal, state, and local jurisdictions make more informed choices. At the federal level, we recommend targeted and consistent funding to support a stronger knowledge base about school policing. This includes more funding of randomized controlled trials and rigorous Quasi-experiments. At the state and local levels, we urge greater attention to the selection and training of officers and careful delineation of roles, all with some flexibility for adaptation to meet local community needs. All communities implementing school policing need to attend to implementation characteristics that improve the opportunities for program success.

By Joe McKenna

Joe McKenna, Vice President of Threat Detection and Prevention Program Development at Navigate360, has held several leadership positions in the school safety industry, including Executive Director of Safety and Student Support for Comal ISD in Texas, where he oversaw the district’s safety, student support and health service departments. Joe also spent seven years at the Texas School Safety Center as the Associate Director, where he managed operations of both the research and education divisions and served as project director for many federal and state-funded research and technical assistance grants.

Before joining Navigate360, Joe served as a Technical Assistance provider for the National Center to Improve Social & Emotional Learning and School Safety, and as a Senior Research Associate with WestEd’s Justice & Prevention Research Center. In these roles, Joe was responsible for leading research and evaluation efforts, providing technical assistance and overseeing the implementation of best practices to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment.

Joe received his MS and PhD from Texas State University in Criminal Justice and his BS from Roger Williams University.

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