School Safety

SRO’s Threats to Shoot Student Highlight Dangers of Police in Schools

F. Chris Curran
Associate Professor and Co-Director of the University of Florida’s Education Policy Research Center

Recently, video emerged of an altercation between a New Port Richey high school student and his school resource officer (SRO).  The video, which has spread rapidly online and received national news coverage, shows the student attempting to leave campus in a car while being blocked by the SRO and a school employee.  The student is apparently attempting to leave campus to attend a dental appointment, for which his parent reports previously notifying the school.  As the student attempts to maneuver his car around the SRO, the SRO threatens twice to shoot the student.

To be fair, it is clear in the video that the student is defiant and less than cooperative, but such juvenile defiance is hardly justification for an officer to threaten to shoot a student.  Such a threat and the use of profanity that accompanied it are entirely inappropriate actions by an SRO.  Neither the student’s behaviors or words in the video signaled any threat to the officer or school staff, certainly none that warranted the officer to threaten the life of the student.

What’s more, the student was eventually expelled, despite the fact that the school district’s code of conduct does not include expulsion as an option for acts of truancy, defiance, or profanity.  It is an ironic response to attempted truancy to further remove a student from the school environment.

As a social scientist who studies school safety and discipline, I have spent years studying the impacts of law enforcement in schools.  Much of my recent research has examined what SROs do in schools and how they interact with student discipline.  I know from this work that cases like this recent one are to be expected when law enforcement are placed at schools.

What we saw in this case in New Port Richey is unfortunately indicative of the risk that research demonstrates comes with placing police in schools.  Studies have consistently shown that the presence of SROs increases the likelihood that students experience arrests and exclusionary discipline like suspensions

In my own work, I’ve seen how SROs integrate into school discipline systems, even in cases where official policy says they should not.  Unfortunately, such involvement with routine discipline raises the risk of a law enforcement response, like arrest or the use of force, for behavior, such as truancy, that should be handled by school officials.

Such responses perhaps should be expected.  After all, SROs are trained in law enforcement techniques and often have minimal training and experience in working with youth.  It is little surprise then, that in moments of confrontation, they resort to law enforcement responses rather than responses that are developmentally appropriate and supportive of students.

The case in New Port Richey demonstrates these issues but also raises broader concerns for schools in the state of Florida. 

State law passed after the tragic Parkland shooting requires either police officers or other armed personnel at all schools in the state.  This new statute means that many schools are implementing SROs for the first time. Consequently, many law enforcement officers are entering the role of SRO from other areas of law enforcement, often without adequate training for their new context. The research suggests that such expansions of SROs will likely lead to more cases like that seen in the video from New Port Richey.

At the end of the day, students should be safe in school – not just from the extremely rare acts of mass school violence but also from violence perpetrated by the law enforcement officers placed in schools to keep them safe.  An officer cursing at and threatening to shoot a student for attempting to leave campus is extremely problematic.  School leadership’s failure to address the issue by reprimanding or removing the officer is potentially even more concerning.

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