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Opinion: Let’s find ways to protect students without placing them at additional risk

Almost immediately after the mass shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the public and legislators once again initiated discussions on how to make schools safer and prevent acts like these from reoccurring.

It was announced recently that Douglas County had approved $10 million toward school safety, which may include buying metal detectors, increasing mental health resources at schools and/or hiring additional school resource officers.

Apryl Alexander

Similarly, during a recent panel discussion at the University of Denver hosted by the university’s Center on American Politics, Gov. Jared Polis also suggested allocating resources to increase school resource officers (SROs).

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville also suggested policy or legislation permitting teachers to carry arms with proper education and training — similar to a bill that recently passed through the Florida Senate.

Although the public agrees we must take swift action against school violence, we must also examine the unintended consequences of these kinds of reactionary policies and practices. School resource officers have been successful in intervening with some threats.

For instance, studies have reported that 75-80% of SROs had confiscated a weapon from a student within the last school year.

However, one of the factors contributing to the “school-to-prison pipeline” — policies and practices in schools that make it more likely for students to face criminal involvement with the juvenile courts — is the presence of SROs in schools.

Research has revealed that the presence of SROs might actually criminalize normative adolescent behavior and lead to an increased number of school arrests. Additionally, in some cases of school shootings, such as those at Columbine and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schools, school resource officers were on duty.

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The officer on-duty at STEM School responded quickly, effectively, and likely reduced casualties. The traditional role of SROs has been as sworn law enforcement officers assigned to patrol schools to investigate rule violations and criminal complaints, creating an adversarial relationship rather than explicitly tasked with fostering nurturing, prosocial relationships with youth in schools.

If Colorado chooses to incorporate more SROs, the scope of their role will need to be clearly defined. Further, these SROs will need to be properly assessed for and trained on implicit biases, as students of color and LGBTQ students are currently unfairly and disproportionately disciplined in schools.

Research highlights that when SROs are more heavily engaged in teaching and counseling students (taking a more proactive versus reactive approach), fewer incidents of school violence and criminal behavior are reported.

In turn, perceptions of their work from teachers, administrators, and students also improve, and they are seen as contributing to a stable and safer learning environment.

Most importantly, increased mental health services and the use of restorative practices are effective prevention strategies for school violence.

According to a recent report from the ACLU, over 14 million students across the country are in schools with police, but no counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers. Social isolation and peer rejection are common factors found in individuals who commit mass violence.

Increasing access to resources and continuing to promote bystander/community intervention approaches, such as Colorado’s Safe2Tell, can help better detect students who are at-risk for engaging in school violence.

As the public navigates how to prevent school violence, we must consider practices that are empirically informed and do not place additional students at risk.

Apryl Alexander is a clinical assistant professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver.


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