Ben Fisher was working as a youth advocate when a violent incident at a school prompted him to consider the true impact of on-site policing in American schools.
For decades, the presence of school resource officers has been a polarizing conversation, especially with the frequency of mass shootings and other high-profile incidents of violence in academic environments over the last 20 years.
His research pinpointed a truth that's rarely addressed in discussions about the value of SROs.
"The data we have does not indicate that there is a preventive effect of SROs from school shootings happening, which is unfortunate because I think a lot of the political rhetoric is that's why police are in schools, largely for that purpose, and the research is showing they're not doing that," said Fisher, associate professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin.
For weeks, politicians, school advocates, activists and police officials have sparred over the presence of school resource officers in Minnesota schools.
Parents across the Twin Cities area recently received messages from their local districts about a pending divorce from SROs as a result of new language — it addresses prone restraints and "any form of physical holding that restricts or impairs a pupil's ability to breathe or … communicate distress." Law enforcement officials originally said that would limit their ability to apply a particular chokehold on students who might pose risks to themselves or other students. The minutiae of their complaint had been confusing. The new law does not limit their ability to make physical contact with students.
On Friday, however, police officers said they will likely return to schools in the days ahead after assurances from Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials that they'll have the autonomy to do their jobs.
But the entire dialogue failed our children, who deserve a more holistic approach to their well-being than the one presented in this conversation. Instead of chokeholds and policing, what about relationships and resources?
I am not a politician. But it does not seem difficult for those who lead this state to consider the alternatives for districts that often spend six-figure sums on SROs.
Our schools need full-time mental health support. Our children need after-school programs that allow them to expend their energy in safe environments. More funding for after-school programs would help. Our staffers need more training on developing bonds with kids across socioeconomic and racial lines. (I say that as a Black student who never felt seen in predominantly white schools.) And our families, who have been burdened by financial constraints and a rapidly shifting economy that's squeezing more people out than it is bringing in, need cash. Yeah, cash.
Imagine a system that devoted some of the resources for SROs to grants for families in need.
I assume students with access to therapy, after-school outlets, strong connections with school personnel and parents and caregivers who would have to worry less about their bills would all benefit. And the children viewed as "risks" would enter the classroom with more balance. The presence of SROs should be viewed as a contribution toward that goal. The pushback on the chokehold language from law enforcement officials, however, suggests that the development and growth of our students are not the priorities. Only the amount of violence that's allowed.
And if the SROs can't contribute toward that collective goal, then why are they in our schools?
"I really think that there is this sort of cultural element to what people in the United States believe that police ought to do — and do — that isn't quite matching with the data and reality of it," Fisher said.
I understand the conversation around SROs is layered. But our refusal to consider alternatives is rooted in socialization more than facts. It's also skewed at the expense of BIPOC students.
Fisher and his peers recently completed a study that included a white, affluent school district and a more diverse, economically disadvantaged district. They spoke with SROs who represented both.
In the white, affluent district, the SROs viewed themselves as protectors from an outside threat. Within the district that had a more diverse student population, the SROs had a different perspective.
"They really viewed their role as policing the students themselves and protecting the schools from the students," Fisher said. "They never said it was because these students are Black, but they used those tropes about them coming from broken families or chaotic neighborhoods and these sorts of racist stereotypes that are used to describe young people of color."
If SROs can help, I understand the support. But we owe it to our children to question the validity of their effectiveness.
Because a standoff began when legislators told infuriated police officials they can't squeeze our children's necks. I wonder, however, what might happen if there were a greater effort to hug them.
Let me know when that conversation begins.