Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
  An Unnecessary Force?

Thousands of schools are now patrolled by armed, uniformed police officers. Critics at Hopkins take issue with their presence -- and the very premise that America's schools are unsafe.

By Dale Keiger
Illustration by Bill Cigliano

On September 21, 1992, on the campus of South Shore High School in Brooklyn, New York, 16-year-old Michael Bubb argued with Damion Ennis, 15. Their dispute was about a football game. Before it was over, Bubb had stabbed Ennis to death with a dagger. On February 2, 1996, 16-year-old Barry Loukitas brought a high-powered rifle to Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake, Washington, and killed a teacher and two classmates, ages 14 and 15. On May 10, 2000, Glen Quatacker, 39, walked into the preschool classroom of his wife, Tammy, and shot her to death before killing himself.

Since 1992, at least 327 people have met violent ends on or near the campuses of American primary and secondary schools. These deaths, plus stories of bullying, gangs, assaults on teachers, and drug dealing in school corridors, have led to concern about the safety of children in school. Thousands of schools are now patrolled by armed, uniformed police officers (often called school resource officers, or SROs). Schools have metal detectors at their front doors, prohibitions against backpacks and gang-related fashions, and zero-tolerance policies that automatically suspend students for even joking about committing violence.

Sheldon Greenberg contends that in too many schools we've gone over the edge, wasted a lot of public money, and unnecessarily scared a lot of kids. He's skeptical that American schools have made themselves much safer, or that most of them were unsafe to begin with.

"We have created in many schools expectations that are grossly unrealistic," says Greenberg, an associate professor and director of the division of public safety leadership at Hopkins' School of Professional Studies in Business and Education (SPSBE), and director of the Hopkins Police Executive Leadership Program (PELP). "We've created this idea that everything will be fine once we get cops in the schools." And that won't happen, he asserts. "They will not end disruption, they will not end school crises, they will not end crime."

Greenberg, formerly a cop in Howard County, Maryland, believes that a properly run SRO program can help resolve some problems in some schools, but says he's opposed to putting officers in schools just for the sake of doing it: "It's show-and-tell stuff that's politically expedient and will have only a short-term effect at great expense, both in dollars and in the emotional well-being of young people."

He is not carping from the sidelines. He and his Hopkins colleagues recently received $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a curriculum on school safety for police, teachers, administrators, and others. Doug Ward, who spent 27 years as a Maryland state trooper and is deputy director of SPSBE's division of public safety leadership, wants to study safe, orderly schools to see what makes them work. "What are the good principals doing right? Let's do more of that. Let's get what's working and teach what's working."

Says Greenberg, "We're stripping kids in many schools of a sense of sanctuary. It would be different if we had well-researched police education programs in which police officers were presenting well-done curricula. But that isn't what's going on. We're creating school-safety problems and a school-safety industry. We're putting armed police officers in schools where they serve as very expensive -- easily $90,000 per full-time officer -- security personnel. We're putting them in schools that have never had a problem."

The American fear that school can be a dangerous place is not new. San Francisco police began working directly with schools in 1942, and a school resource officer program appeared in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s. The film Blackboard Jungle, starring Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, and Vic Morrow, portrayed a gang of punks terrorizing an inner-city high school. It appeared in theaters in 1955. The National Alliance for Safe Schools was founded in 1977, "to provide training, technical assistance, and publications to school districts interested in reducing school-based crime and violence," according to its Web site. The Baltimore School Police began as a division of the city school system in 1967. Employment of SROs around the country became more common in the 1980s and '90s because of mounting concerns about juvenile gang violence and the crack cocaine epidemic.

"We're stripping kids in many schools of a sense of sanctuary," says Greenberg. "We're creating school-safety problems and a school-safety industry." But a major impetus behind spending public money on cops in schools came in 1999: Columbine. On April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado, two Columbine High School students, Eric Harris, 17, and Dylan Klebold, 18, walked onto campus and began shooting. They detonated explosives, threw pipe bombs, and fired hundreds of rounds. Approximately 45 minutes later, they killed themselves, but not before they had murdered 13 other people and injured 160, 24 of them seriously.

The Columbine violence followed well-publicized school shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas. The public began to form the idea that any school -- even those in the rural heartland or upscale suburbia - - was a potential combat zone. Government agencies issued alarming publications. "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective" came from the FBI. The Department of Education issued "Safeguarding Our Children: An Action Guide." And the U.S. Justice Department turned on the cash spigot.

One year after Columbine, President Bill Clinton announced that Justice would make available millions in federal grants for the COPS in Schools program; according to a DOJ fact sheet from April 2002, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has awarded more than $567 million to more than 2,100 law enforcement agencies, to pay for more than 4,900 SROs. States made their own appropriations. For example, a month before Columbine, Virginia had already allocated $1 million to support SRO programs; 20 days after the shootings, the governor earmarked another $1.5 million, and the 2000 Virginia General Assembly anted up $700,000 more. According to Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), schools nationwide now employ about 14,000 SROs.

The first point of contention is whether school cops are even needed. Are American schools unsafe? No, says the National Education Association, which in August 2001 cited a 1996-97 study that found only 10 percent of all schools reported any instance of serious crime, and 43 percent reported no crime at all. Furthermore, the NEA noted, 99 percent of children's deaths occur away from school. "In general," says the NEA's report, "the public believes schools are becoming more dangerous -- even while crime rates have declined ... and some 87 percent of students say their schools are safe."

No, agrees the Justice Department's National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Its online report "In the Spotlight: School Safety," says, "Although school shootings have attracted public attention to violence associated with schools, the fact remains that the vast majority of America's schools are safe places. Of all homicides and suicides among children 5-19 years of age, less than 1 percent occur in or around school grounds or on the way to or from school." The report goes on to note that school-associated violent deaths decreased by 40 percent between the 1998 and 1999 school years, and that most school crime is theft, not violence.

No, according to the 2001 Surgeon General's report "Youth Violence," which said, "Recent shootings at schools have galvanized public concern about school safety, but studies described here find that schools nationwide are relatively safe."

Kenneth S. Trump begs to differ. Trump, a former security director in the Cleveland, Ohio, public school system, is now president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm. He has served on the board of directors of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers and has written two books on safe schools. He says, "The reality is that there is no accurate and consistent collection of data on school-based crimes in the United States. My position is that national statistics grossly underestimate the extent of school crime and violence, public and media perceptions often overstate the extent of school crime and violence, and reality exists somewhere in between."

Ward, left, and Greenberg aim to study safe schools to see what makes them work. Trump cites a 2001 NASRO survey of 689 SROs, which he authored. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said that crimes on school campuses nationwide are underreported to police. Furthermore, 67 percent reported that they have prevented a school faculty or staff member from being assaulted by a student or other individual on campus, and 92 percent reported preventing "from one to 25 violent acts in an average school year." Says Trump, "You couldn't get 689 cops -- or three cops, for that matter -- to agree on where to go for lunch, yet the data in the NASRO study is so very, very strong that it is impossible for me to think that it could represent anything but reality. And it reflects my 20 years of experience on the front lines in the field."

Greenberg remains unconvinced. "First," he says, "you're surveying people who need to perpetuate their jobs. And number two, how do you know what you prevent? If I saw two students arguing and told them to knock it off, is that considered preventing a violent act? Prevention is very hard to measure."

Trump responds: "I never see people like college professors criticizing shopping mall management for having a police presence to protect them while they shop. If schools are safer than other places in society, the ultimate question still must be: Safer than what? If 50 kids are assaulted in the community and 'only' 25 are assaulted in school, statistically the school is a safer place than the community. But what does this mean to the 25 victims in school? It could be argued that a preventative presence, such as an SRO, is the reason schools are safer than elsewhere in the community."

Greenberg concedes that some school administrations do underreport serious incidents -- often because principals' job performance ratings are based on statistics, he says: test scores up, attendance up, violent-incident reports down, principal keeps her job. He knows of too many cases in which school administrators have argued with police, including SROs, against treating violent incidents as criminal matters; better instead to consider them mere disciplinary incidents that can be handled internally and, more to the point, not reported.

But, Greenberg says, there aren't enough of those incidents to challenge his belief that schools are safe. Because many forms of disruption -- students milling in halls, backtalking in class -- are not violations of law, school cops can't do much to restore order; that's the school administration's job. Finally, Greenberg says, in most cases SROs could not have prevented the extreme violence that so alarms parents and the public. He refers to the National School Safety Center's "Report on School Associated Violent Deaths," which tabulated all such deaths from the 1992-93 school year through March 2002: "You're looking at 327 violent deaths in schools since 1992," says Greenberg. "Out of that, 94 were unknown as to cause. Fifty-eight were suicides. Seventeen were accidents. Thirty-seven were gang-related. Eighty-one were interpersonal disputes. There's no way in the world that a school resource officer, unless he or she happens to be in the right place at the right moment, is going to prevent those." On the day Klebold and Harris shot their way into Columbine High, Greenberg notes, there was a uniformed SRO in the building.

Patsy J. Holmes, coordinator of the Baltimore County Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, agrees, but only up to a point. "We can't predict when there's going to be an act of violence, or when a kid will decide to bring drugs or weapons into a building," she says. "But we can deter that if we have the presence of that police officer in the building, and a police car out front, because most of that stuff comes in from the outside community. That car encourages someone to go somewhere else to deal his drugs or weapons."

Greenberg is critical of the push for police officers in schools for another reason: He believes such initiatives tell kids that what they thought was a sanctuary is not really safe after all. "That's not a personal hunch. It's real personal experience, coming from my having talked to many, many, many teachers," he says, adding, "In talking to kids, teachers, and parents when I was involved in the Baltimore County Schools Committee on Student Behavior, we repeatedly heard questions like: What's wrong? Why did they single out our school for a police officer? They asked those questions more than they expressed any relief that an officer was going to be in their school."

"While this makes good ivory tower theory," Trump responds, "I would strongly argue that not having reasonable security measures in place tells kids that the people who supposedly care about them have no concern for their safety. Kids tell us repeatedly that they have no objections to school resource officers or to the fact that the officers are armed."

Holmes, who has been a teacher and a school administrator, says, "Without exception, each of the [Baltimore County] high school principals will tell you, 'We don't know what we did without the officers here.' Any time there's a threat of imminent danger, the SROs are in charge. It frees up the principal to be an educator." It's easy, she adds, to underestimate the problems faced by administrators, teachers, and students. "As a teacher, I did not realize how much time we spent communicating with the police until I became an assistant principal," she adds. "Students who behave don't believe many kids misbehave. Students who don't do drugs don't believe drugs are being done in their schools. Students who do drugs in schools believe everybody does drugs. Our perception is based upon our behavior. We perceive things to be the way we lead our lives."

Doug Ward, Greenberg's colleague at PELP, says, "Schools currently safe should remain safe without adding a police force. Schools unsafe should use police officers not just as security but to contribute to education and the welfare of the community."

That last sentence is important, because it helps explain why he and Greenberg now have $1.4 million from the Justice Department that will make them players in the school-safety industry that they deride. "We're not opposed to all school resource officers," Greenberg says. "We just want to see them happen the right way. In a school where a lack of school security is a well-known issue, absolutely [a cop can help]," he says, whereas in safe schools, "you could have officers who float through two or three schools, working with teachers on law-related education." When an SRO serves as mentor, counselor, and teacher for subjects like civil rights, search-and-seizure laws, and judicial procedures, that, says Greenberg, is a much better use of public resources. "I am frustrated by the fact that this is the foundation of the SRO concept, yet only a handful of programs fulfill those functions," he says.

Holmes agrees with him about underutilized SROs. "A school may have four or five officers in a building -- with large amounts of money being spent -- doing cafeteria duty, parking lot duty, bus duty," she says. "But they're not communicating in positive ways with kids. The kids just see them as law enforcers. They never get to talk to them about any of the things kids need to know to respect the law."

Greenberg also supports Police Athletic League (PAL) programs, which organize and supervise kids in after-school activities. He says, "To assign police officers to deal with young people while they're in school, then ignore them the rest of the time, really makes an SRO program an effort in futility. We know that, statistically, the majority of juvenile-related crime occurs in the hours immediately after school, between 3 and 6 or 7. If the intent is to serve young people, then it's absolutely essential to have equal focus to the after-school hours."

He and Ward plan to spend the Justice Department grant developing a curriculum that would educate police, school administrators, teachers, and parents in what constitutes a good SRO program. They foresee an electronic learning community, with Web-based learning, direct electronic instruction, and Internet conferences. They say that in many schools, the SRO has received only 48 total hours of special training, and that teachers receive no instruction at all in how to work with the school cop. There is no text on how best to be an SRO, Ward says. "We're going to write that chapter."

Greenberg concludes, "Police officers should be placed in schools only after careful analysis that involves talking to students, teachers, administrators, and parents. There has to be a sense of reasonableness."

Return to September 2002 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | The Johns Hopkins University | 3003 North Charles Street |
Suite 100 | Baltimore, Maryland 21218 | Phone 410.516.7645 | Fax 410.516.5251