REIMAGINING SCHOOL SAFETY
Submitted to Phoenix Union High School District
Laura Rethmann, Research Associate, Grand Canyon Institute
Luis Fernandez, Ph.D., Chair, Criminology and Criminal Justice Department, Northern Arizona University
Amy Pedotto, Research Project Manager, Grand Canyon Institute
This report provides information from school districts that are maintaining physical, psychological, and social safety of their students, faculty, and staff, with minimal reliance on law enforcement. We examined the available research on School Resource Officers (SROs) and documented efforts in six districts across the country engaged in such efforts. A brief description of districts, our interview protocol, and additional information can be found in the appendices. This report also identifies strategies for reimagining school safety, highlighting the salient issues that school districts faced in the implementation cycle. Below is a short overview of the literature on SROs, a summary of key findings, and recommendations based on the information collected.
The second to last section of the document contains a more detailed discussion of each of the points below.
School Resource Officer Overview
The last three decades have seen a significant increase in law enforcement in schools, especially with the use of SROs. Scholars traced the expansion of SRO programs to concerns around juvenile crime, fears of school shootings, and government funding programs. However, evidence suggests that SROs can negatively impact school culture and climate and have little to no impact on crime prevention or deterrence. Alternatively, research largely supports that the presence of SROs in schools increases rates of exclusionary practices, citations, and arrests of students, and decreases educational opportunities, especially for marginalized students.
Nationwide discussions on police brutality and racial injustice combined with schools using remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic have led many school districts to take the first steps to end contracts with SROs. In July 2020, the Phoenix Union High School District decided not to renew its inter-governmental agreement with the City of Phoenix Police Department to engage SROs at its high schools. Instead, the district reallocated safety funds to a $1.2 million participatory budgeting initiative to reimagine school safety. While school safety is a multidimensional concept, this project continues to gather information to inform strategies to provide for the physical, psychological, and social safety of students, faculty, and staff without relying on law enforcement. Below,
we discuss our key findings and recommendations.
Below are some of the salient points that arose during document review and interviews with school officials. Each of these were brought forth by several districts as worth noting.
Process is important: Reimagining school safety is unfolding and requires time
● Reimagining school safety is a long-term effort that requires a deliberate and
Building a good student culture is key, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
● Students returned to school with increased mental health issues and feelings of
isolation, as well as alienation. This made implementation of a new safety model
● As such, the safety models reviewed in this research paper required building a
positive student culture during difficult times. Thus, school districts need to invest time and resources to rebuild student connections and relationships.
Build internal capacity in schools: A successful safety model requires more than a centralized team and change of personnel.
● While central office safety response teams are useful and continue to be in place, it is key to also maintain school-based safety personnel to help build
relationships and use de-escalation techniques that prevent the need for law
enforcement. School-based safety personnel can have varying job descriptions
however, these staff are explicitly designated to respond to internal safety-related matters and exterior threats.
● Efforts to build multidisciplinary support networks that extend beyond safety staff alone were identified as an important component of school safety.
● It is important to build school administrator and staff buy-in of new safety
requirements, approaches, and protocols.
Mentors over muscle: Issues with armed personnel
● All districts developed a safety model that moved from a punitive to a relational
● Emphasis on de-escalation techniques, trauma-informed practices, and
nonviolent crisis intervention were suggested.
● Employing armed personnel increases liability insurance and was largely
unwanted by students and local communities.
● Districts do not want safety personnel to be perceived as law enforcement.
Least amount of contact with law enforcement, but not none
● All districts have mandatory reporting to law enforcement, and thus had to build protocols.
● Districts reported that a switch from a law enforcement to a prevention model
often resulted in a strained relationship and loss of communication with the local
police department, and that communication gap resulted in numerous challenges
that required attention.
● Districts found it useful to outline the responsibilities of schools and police,
building police accountability frameworks. This was done either with a new
Memorandum of Understanding or clear and specific protocols.
Safety teams function as mediators between students and law enforcement
● Districts developed strategies to reduce harmful legal situations for students,
mainly through a decrease in police contact.
● Many districts rely heavily on their legal department and Title IX office to navigate issues.
● Some districts’ centralized safety personnel are deployed to school sites when
there is an incident that requires law enforcement notification.
Each district also provided suggestions and recommendations for others undergoing a similar process. Below, we identify useful points encountered during interviews.
Phased implementation approaches are recommended
● When adopting a new safety model, it is important to take time to develop a
multi-year, phased-in implementation plan that includes identifying, assigning,
and implementing safety protocols.
● Assembling a team of individuals who can carefully develop a safety model, with phased-in implementation timelines, was recommended as useful. Team
members can include individuals involved in district safety, behavioral support,
administrators, teachers, students, families, and community groups.
● The first phase of a new safety model should include identifying all potential
school incidents (including threats of and actual violence), how they should be
handled, and who is responsible. District and site-based planning should
specifically account for how staff will respond in all instances when an SRO
would previously be asked to respond to an issue. This information should inform subsequent phases of the planning process.
● Districts should look for these kinds of potential issues:
○ Too many people are responsible for a safety component.
○ One or two individuals are responsible for too many components.
○ No one is responsible for specific safety components.
If possible, hire, train, and build safety teams after building a thorough safety plan
● Once school safety plans are developed, districts should then outline the safety
personnel needed to fill the gaps.
○ This could be a second phase of implementation.
● If districts choose to use safety personnel, it is recommended that they are hired and trained in de-escalation; trauma-informed, restorative practices; and
nonviolent crisis intervention techniques before being placed in schools.
Build the capacity of schools to handle conflict mediation and crisis intervention
● Districts should use a community-relational model of crisis response.
● All staff should be consulted, informed, and involved in the process of developing the new safety model to help build both capacity and cooperation.
● It was recommended that districts use multidisciplinary wraparound teams.
○ For example, site-based, coordination service teams or post-crisis
response teams that connect students to available resources after
behavioral events. Teams can include staff capable of providing mental
health services, crisis team members, and communications coordinators.
● Districts should continue to expand and develop programs focused on social and emotional skills, restorative justice, and conflict mediation. (See Appendix B for details.)
● These programs are successful when districts dedicate time and resources for
Districts should clearly outline procedures in instances where law enforcement notification is mandatory. Further, using trained staff as a mediator between students and law enforcement is useful.
● Districts should consult with their legal advisors and create plans for how law
enforcement are notified.
● If possible and law enforcement is cooperative, draft a memorandum of
understanding (MOU) that outlines the procedures and responsibilities of each
institution to maintain safety in schools.
● Train staff to facilitate contact between law enforcement and students to prevent entry into the criminal justice system if at all possible.
● If no formal agreement with local law enforcement is possible, then districts can implement clear policies and procedures across schools to ensure consistency across the district and to guide administrators and staff on how to respond to specific issues.