School Resource Officers and Perceptions of Fairness in the Criminal Justice System
by Julia Reinach
Nominated by Fadilat Olasupo (GSI) and Andrei Boutyline (Faculty) for Sociology 310: Sociological Research Methods
When I think back on my conversations with Julia, I can vividly recall the excitement in her eyes as we discussed my research on criminal legal institutions and racial inequality. It was truly heartwarming to see her passion for the subject matter, and I was deeply impressed by her academic accomplishments and her commitment to exploring issues of inequality within the legal system.What particularly stood out to me was Julia's involvement with the Carceral State Project and Social Justice and Policing History Lab, where she concentrated on matters concerning prisoner rights, conditions of confinement, resistance, Detroit Police violence, and wrongful convictions. These experiences demonstrated her unwavering dedication to understanding the complexities of the criminal justice system, and I knew that she possessed a unique perspective that would enrich any discussion.
In this paper, Julia delves into the important question of how interactions with school resource officers (SROs) shape students' perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system. Her qualitative interviews with a diverse group of University of Michigan undergraduate students reveal nuanced and thoughtful perspectives that capture each participant's unique voice and experiences. I am especially impressed by the careful thoughtfulness that Julia brings to her interview questions, which elicit rich and detailed responses from her participants. Her findings shed light on the role of preconceived notions in shaping student perceptions of fairness and emphasize how interactions with SROs challenge or reinforce these preconceptions.
Overall, Julia's paper is exceptionally insightful and thought-provoking, and I believe it is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand how perceptions of the criminal justice system are shaped.
- Fadilat Olasupo
Cops in School: School Resource Officers and Perceptions of Fairness in the Criminal Justice System
There is very little doubt that the criminal justice system in the United States is flawed. There are over 2 million people incarcerated in US prisons and jails, many of whom were sentenced to extreme sentences due to mandatory minimums arising out of the prison boom and War on Drugs in the 1970s-1980s. The prison conditions are inhumane, and even when individuals are released from prison, they are met with barriers to housing, employment, voting, and healthcare (Grabenstein, 2022). The reach of the criminal legal system is not only confined to police officers and judges however – the rise in zero tolerance policies in schools and the presence of school resource officers (who play varying roles based on location and school district) have contributed to the criminal legal system reaching into educational institutions, where individuals were previously sheltered from the discrimination and cruelty of the legal system.
One of the clearest ways that students interact with the criminal justice system while in educational institutions is through daily interactions with a school resource officer (SRO) – an often armed law-enforcement officer with full arrest powers, who tends to wear full police uniform, arrive in a police car, and carry handcuffs (Sawchuk, 2022). These daily interactions with a member of law enforcement certainly impact the way that students perceive the justice system. On one hand, previous studies suggest that positive perceptions of police and the justice system may correlate with increased compliance with the law (Nagin & Telep, 2020). Since an SRO may be the first legitimate officer that students have frequent contact with, these SROs play a critical role in shaping and socializing perceptions of fairness within the justice system – positive interactions may then shape positive perceptions of fairness of the justice system (Fagan & Tyler, 2005). On the other hand, legal socialization of youth towards an inherently flawed system only exacerbates the problems and injustices within the system. Legal socialization refers to the processes through which individuals attain their beliefs and attitudes about the legal system, legal actors, or laws in general. By interacting frequently with SROs, youth are socialized to see these connections in a certain way, often becoming normalized as they are occurring outside of the typical legal realm.
The connection between educational institutions and the criminal justice system is highlighted when thinking about the school-to-prison pipeline, the funneling of juveniles from schools into the legal system through encounters with police and “stops” along the way including disciplinary hearings, suspensions, alternative schooling, or detention centers. According to the ACLU, the zero-tolerance policies and actions of some SROs disproportionately impact students of color – Black students are expelled and suspended at rates three times greater than their white counterparts; and individuals with suspensions or expulsions for an educational discretionary violation are almost three times more likely to encounter the juvenile justice system in the following year than those not punished while in school (School-to-Prison Pipeline, 2022).
While there has been previous research conducted on the connection between perceptions of police and the presence of SROs, there have been significantly fewer studies studying how interactions with SROs impact student perceptions of fairness within the broader justice system. For this reason, and to focus on the school-to-prison pipeline, the research question I will be focusing on is how do perceptions of fairness about the criminal legal system differ among college students based on social interactions with a school resource officer during their high school education? After conducting a series of eight original interviews, my results suggest that previously held beliefs about the police in general, and the increase in/fear surrounding mass shootings in the United States have a more substantial impact on perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system than either the quality or quantity of interactions between participants and their school resource officers. Overwhelmingly, these subjects had neutral to positive interactions with their school resource officer, and yet, displayed neutral to negative perceptions of the criminal justice system.
The key concepts that I will be focusing on are interactions with school resource officers and perceptions of fairness in the criminal justice system. For the first concept (interactions with SROs), I will start by evaluating the quantity of interactions. I will measure this through a self-report of how often the participant interacted with the SRO (ie: frequently, infrequently). The second dimension I will be focusing on is quality of interactions. I will measure this once again through self-reports – participants will explain their interactions using various scales (my questions will prompt them to identify if their relationship was good/bad, if they felt safe/unsafe, and if these interactions were helpful/unhelpful, etc). The second concept is the perception of fairness within the criminal legal system. Fairness, in this case, is being used to gauge whether students think that the criminal legal system is (i) unbiased, (ii) working in the way it was intended – with them clarifying what that perceived intention is –, and (iii) keeping people safe/dealing with perceived threats, once again all measured through participant responses.
For this research, my results arose from a series of eight in-depth interviews – however, these interviewees were chosen from a large pilot survey that I originally sent out via social media. I chose to use interviews because my research questions lend themselves best to interpersonal communication, more robustly achieved through interviews compared to surveys. For some people, talking about previous experiences with the criminal justice system or with school resources officers during their education is traumatic or emotional. Since I wanted to take the emotional aspect of the interviews into consideration, and I wanted to make sure that my participant and I were able to establish a basis of trust, it made the most sense for me to sit with the participant and ask them questions face-to-face, rather than through a survey.
Secondly, the goal of my research is to understand detailed perceptions of a complicated system that most people are aware of, but one that not everyone can or is willing to talk about without being prompted. The criminal justice system and understanding of an SRO’s participation within it is much harder to communicate through a survey than through an interview. Since my goal was to reduce any response error, I chose to use interviews rather than surveys so as not to confuse or exhaust participants.
Third, the most important variable that I am measuring is an individual perception. Gathering information on individual perceptions through a survey is much more difficult than through face-to-face interviews, since the responses would have to be standardized, which eliminates the nuance I am investigating. Finally, with interviews, I was able to provide articles or data about the criminal justice system, and ask participants questions about those figures as well. This aspect of my interview was very interesting, since showing participants the headlines about news stories further solidified their perspective on the criminal justice system and reinforced their stance in a more succinct way. In one example, showing a participant a headline about some interaction with an SRO and hearing that “things like this should not be happening…a student being body slammed by a school resource officer is never appropriate” just worked to reinforce their beliefs and my own interpretation of their perceptions. Even when showing participants headlines about SROs in a more positive light – breaking up fights or stopping school shootings – participants were quick to say that:
“I don't know if I ever want to call someone a hero for killing someone. That seems problematic to me. I guess they then turned into a national hero because we're all fighting against this plague of school shooters, but that is still a life.”
For the more general pilot survey that I sent out over social media, the point was to collect basic demographic information, as well as gauge if students attended schools that even had SROs, their general experiences with an SRO, and most importantly, if they would be willing to sit for an interview. Then, I would use their responses to help with my purposive sampling for interviews.
As mentioned above, the study began with a general pilot survey sent out through Google Forms over Instagram. While this at first may seem like convenience sampling, when it came time to choose who to conduct actual interviews with, I made sure to eliminate people who I had close relationships with, and instead, chose to talk to people I did not interact with as much. Social media was the most effective strategy for my pilot survey because even though I may have personal relationships with most of the people I am connected to through Instagram or Facebook, I certainly do not know about all of their experiences in high school, or their perceptions on the criminal justice system. Additionally, to further reduce the risk of convenience sampling, a few of my roommates agreed to post the survey on their social media, which meant that my population could extend to students outside just the University of Michigan.
After sending out my initial pilot survey, I got 61 responses, and 28 people said they would be willing to participate in interviews. Of those 28, I divided them based on how they had responded to survey questions, keeping track of the number of people who had multiple interactions with SROs, those who rarely interacted, and those who did not interact. I then removed people I had very close personal relationships with from the data set. As just summarized, participants were included in my potential sampling pool if they had an SRO in high school, if they interacted with the SRO (even if it was rare interactions), and most importantly, if they expressed interest in being interviewed. Participants were excluded if they were not college students (since they would be out of my population – I did have some participants fill out the survey who were not college students, and unfortunately, had to remove them from the sampling frame), or if they did not attend a high school with an SRO. I originally intended to remove participants who attended schools with an SRO but did not ever interact with them, but I decided to keep them in my sampling frame because I thought it would be interesting to investigate the reasons why they never interacted. Although I did not plan to use this data in my final results, I personally thought it would be interesting to learn more and see if their answers could help guide my analysis. Ultimately, the person who indicated that they never interacted with an SRO came to the realization during the interview that they actually did interact, so they actually were included in my final results.
To determine how perceptions of fairness regarding the criminal justice system differed depending on interactions with an SRO, I conducted a series of eight in-depth interviews. As mentioned in the Introduction, the main variables that I was measuring were interactions with an SRO (as determined through investigations into quality and quantity), as well as perceptions of fairness (conceptualized by thinking about whether students think that the criminal legal system is unbiased, intentional, and protective). However, as my results suggest, mediators, moderators, and counter-explanations provided more direct insight into the relationship between SROs and perceptions of fairness.
One of the mediators that I observed was the prior relationship that the participant had with the SRO – participants with previous knowledge and relationships with their SRO often saw them as a good person. Mediators are intermediate variables that explain by what means the independent variable impacts the dependent variable, and so, there are two main ways that a mediator would impact the relationship. First, if the participant developed a positive relationship with officers outside of the normal education system, participants could be more likely to see the criminal justice system as working fairly because a person they are close with is directly involved in the system. Therefore, they are likely to see the criminal justice system as an extension of that good relationship. Oppositely, if the person developed a negative outside relationship with their SRO due to frequent negative interactions, this might impact their perceptions of fairness of the justice system because the only person they interact with from that system makes them feel unsafe, disrespected, or targeted. Furthermore, negative interactions with authority could lead them to think that others may have similar interactions (in quality and quantity), and therefore would believe that the system is not working in a fair way (especially if they believe that they should not have as many interactions with the SRO as they have). To gather more information on the impact of this mediator, one of the questions that I asked participants specifically focusing on prior relationships was “how did you come to know your school resource officer?” or “how did these interactions make you feel?”
A moderator in the relationship between interactions with SROs and perceptions of fairness would be preconceived notions or prior knowledge about the criminal justice system. A moderator affects the relationship between the variables, and if a participant already holds beliefs about the system (positive or negative), that is likely to shape how they view their interactions with officers and in turn, how they view the system. Another example of a moderator for both of these examples could be prior knowledge about the criminal justice system. Having knowledge of the disproportionate impact of incarceration on people of color (or simply just having prior education on the criminal justice system) could shape how people view the criminal justice system in light of their interactions. To figure out the extent to which the moderator impacted the relationship, I asked questions such as “could you tell me where you first got your ideas about the criminal justice system?” or “could you explain what X term means in your own words?”
To evaluate the school-to-prison pipeline in its entirety would also have to include looking at the location and type of school, the socioeconomic status of the students and district of the school, the racial demographics of the school, and the funding available for the school. However, my project does not have the capacity to capture all of these potential other factors in the school-to-prison pipeline, which opens up the possibility for a number of counter explanations. The most notable counter explanation for the relationship between interactions with school resource officers and perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system is prior interactions with the criminal justice system. This is different than just preconceived/prior bias about the system, and instead focuses on concrete interactions between the participant and the justice system – including interactions with police, the court system, parole/probation, or detention centers. To measure this, I frequently asked participants if they had previous encounters with the justice system – and I found that only a few had (mostly in small noise complaints or traffic stops). While I am aware of the sensitivity of this question, all participants were very forthcoming and honest, however I am sure that there was some aspect of socially-desirable responding at play. Ultimately though, this question was not super influential on my final analysis, so the potential for self-report bias is not as important to this study.
In this scenario, I am analyzing perceptions of the criminal justice system based on interactions with a specific aspect of the criminal justice system – in-school police officers. As a counter explanation, previous interactions with the criminal justice system are likely to influence perceptions of fairness. For example, if someone had been stopped by police at a traffic stop for no clear reason, they might be more likely to see the criminal justice system as unfair because they would not understand why they were stopped. This interaction certainly influences how they perceive the justice system, but is not directly caused by interactions with a school resource officer. Additionally, if an individual has constant exposure to the criminal justice system, that would certainly influence how they perceive the system to work – similar to the previous explanation, if the individual does not feel as though they should be having frequent encounters with law enforcement or legal institutions, they probably would view the criminal justice system as more unfair than someone who does not frequently interact with the institution. Prior interaction with the criminal justice system is a viable counter-explanation rather than simply a more detailed or unrelated explanation because previous experiences with the justice system could be correlated with increased interactions with onsite school resource officers. Therefore, the perceptions of the justice system might be shaped by the previous interactions, rather than the interactions with SROs.
One potential confounder in this example is race. According to the ACLU, in 2017, while only representing 15.5% of public school enrollment nationally, Black students made up 33.4% of school-related arrests (Hinger, 2022). Further, according to the New York Times in 2019, Black and Hispanic students made up over 90% of arrests and summonses in New York public schools (Shapiro, 2019). Since a confounder is a variable that impacts both the dependent and independent variables, race is a good example. To start, race impacts interactions with school resource officers due to the increased prevalence of SROs in predominantly Black and Brown schools, the inherent racism/white supremacy/systemic bias built into the criminal justice system, and the hyper criminalization of Black and Brown youth. SROs that are more present in schools with a higher population of students of color coupled with a police officer’s preconceived biases about the students (specifically regarding their race and therefore, their criminal activity), means that it is more likely for there to be increased interactions with the legal system. The confounding variable of race also impacts the dependent variable, which is perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system. As we have seen numerous times through social media, prior research studies, and examinations of the application of legal doctrines, the criminal justice system is built on white supremacy and dominance (German, 2020). People of color are disproportionately likely to be killed while unarmed, and more likely to be incarcerated, arrested, or stopped by police (wrongfully and legally). Seeing a justice system that so often works either for or against members of one’s social group (depending on their race) likely contributes to their opinions on how the system is working – a great example of a confounding variable. My information about a participant’s race came from their own self-identification during my initial pilot survey, or if they talked about it in their interview specifically.
Of the 28 people mentioned in the Sampling Plan section who said they were willing to do interviews, I decided to reach out to nine participants who represented a wide range of quantity of interactions – of those nine, three people did interact with their SRO, five people rarely interacted, and one person did not ever interact. Eight people responded to my request, and I was able to conduct interviews in person or on Zoom with all eight of them. The eight interviews in total spanned 318 minutes (about 5.5 hours). Luckily, I did not experience many challenges to collecting data, so I was able to follow my purposive sampling plan mentioned above.
Before beginning to conduct research and interview participants, I identified two main hypothetical arguments that were shaping my analysis. The first was that good interactions with an SRO (either frequent or minimal) lead people to believe the criminal justice system is fair. The other option was that negative interactions with the SRO (either frequent or minimal) cause people to believe that the criminal justice system is unfair. When looking at the results of my interviews, I have found that neither of these are perfectly correct, which leads me to believe that there are potentially multiple other factors (the mediators and moderators discussed above) that are involved that shape perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system.
First, it is important to take into consideration the demographics and general information about the participants. Of the eight participants, six attended public school, one attended a private catholic high school, and the other one attended a boarding school. Five participants were white, one participant was African-American/Black, and the other two participants self-identified as biracial/multiracial. Four participants identified as male, and the other four participants identified as female. In general, all participants had interactions with their school resource officers, however these interactions ranged from rarely to daily, and all participants self identified the quality of their relationships as ranging from neutral to generally positive. However, almost all participants had overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the criminal justice system, which becomes especially relevant when thinking about potential confounding variables or counter explanations – the neutrality of experience described by participants helped me illuminate what I believe is really influencing those perceptions of the criminal justice system – previous interactions, preconceived knowledge, and their own biases.
Analyzing the relationship between interactions with a school resource officer (SRO) and perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system relies on a few key concepts. First, the quantity of interactions. Participant answers ranged greatly – some described their number of interactions as shallow, saying that “the majority of interactions with [the SRO] were in passing or more of the day-to-day interactions”, while others say they interacted with their SRO daily – the SRO was always parked in front of the school, waving, checking kids in, helping when students locked themselves out of buildings, or even going around to lockers and checking for drugs if necessary. However, the more important aspect of interactions with SRO came from the self-described quality of interactions – which is where the potential mediators and moderators start to have an impact.
At first, it appeared that a potential mediator would be whether the participant has a good relationship with the SRO and genuinely likes them as a person. This mediator (as elaborated on above) was generally supported by the results of the interviews – participants described their SRO as friendly, “jovial, super sweet”, with a “pretty wide smile”, someone who would make themselves laugh, or even just someone who would roam the halls without a super distinct positive or negative force around them. Only one participant described having a negative relationship with one of their SROs, as that SRO was gruff and unnecessarily rude.
Furthermore, there was an interesting connection between the participants' self-identified size of their hometown or closeness with their town police, and their views on the criminal justice system. One participant, growing up in a small town in West Virginia stated that:
“it's a small town. So a lot of police officers tend to be more forgiving because it's like ‘I know you, I know that you are from here’ or something like that. And so they tend to be less of an ass because they see themselves as more tight knit in the community.”
Another participant talked about how her hometown size influenced how she came to her perceptions of the justice system. She stated that:
“I come from a very – I don’t want to say crime free area, but like – very white, very affluent. There was lots of addiction problems in my town. Like the opioid crisis was unfortunately huge there, but not so much ‘crime’. Every once in a while it would be like ‘oh, there's someone robbing cars or someone robbing whatever’, but other than that, it was very rare … My perception [of the justice system] comes from where I grew up. I have a very removed definition of it. I'm very privileged to have that removed perspective of it.”
When looking into these connections, it becomes clear that hometown size and perceived relationships between community and local police stations influenced both prior conceptions of SROs (participant 8 describes the SROs as “usually people who lived in the community, sometimes it'd be like people's dads”), and prior knowledge/notions about the criminal justice system, and thus, the individual perceptions of fairness within the system.
While the mediator did play an important role in shaping perceptions of fairness in the criminal justice system, the relationship was also heavily impacted by the moderator – preconceived notions or knowledge about the criminal justice system. One participant described how they actively tried to ignore the presence of the SROs, since:
“a lot of the time, they didn't really know who I was and I didn't really know who they were. [But] as a Black student when I'd walk around – I was student council president – but when they see me, that's not what they see. At one point, one of the security guards stopped me in the hallway when I was on my way to a [student council] meeting with the principal. He asked me for my passes, but I was literally going to see the principal so I didn't have a pass. So I think they're kind of just there, walking around and existing, but like I could care less.”
Other participants describe how their knowledge of the school-to-prison pipeline and police brutality shaped their perceptions of the criminal justice system. Many participants stated that knowing the police were involved in an educational institution made them uncomfortable and uneasy, which made them actively avoid interacting with the SRO unless it was absolutely necessary. In this scenario in particular – and for this moderator in particular – having knowledge of the disproportionate impact of incarceration on people of color (or simply just having prior education on the criminal justice system) definitely shaped how people responded to questions about their perception of fairness within the criminal justice system in light of their interactions. One participant said that:
“the criminal justice system is something that is not inherently wrong or inherently bad, but it has manifested itself in a way and taken on practices which are so unbelievably dehumanizing that it is corrupting our society in every possible way. And you see the difference in treatment, it is astronomical. Nothing is just without equality. And there's no equality in our criminal justice system right now.”
Having extensive knowledge or already formed beliefs about the implementation and distribution of justice within the criminal justice system was a clear moderator in this relationship.
The second big concept that was measured was the perception of fairness within the criminal justice system. First, participants overwhelmingly did not think the system was unbiased. Some brought up incidents of police brutality, sentencing disparities, or mandatory minimums, while others brought up marijuana convictions. But, all participants saw areas of bias within the system. Secondly, participants were a bit more stumped in general on whether or not the system was working the way it was intended. Some argued that the “aim behind [the system] is still noble. Innocent until proven guilty, trying to rectify the requirements on the victims” all sound like positive and beneficial attributes. Others argued, however, that the criminal justice system will never work the way it was intended, since:
“in order to account for a decision or a verdict that is going to lead to the most net positive for society and the individual, you have to be so individually specific and discriminatory in how you're looking at the situation and everything like that. And it's so hard to put into writing laws and procedures that accomplish that for everyone on the broad scale. So, there's always going to be some level of inaccuracy in terms of creating the most benefits to society.”
Finally, participants did generally agree that the system of having an SRO in a school was working to deal with perceived threats, although people differed in how they defined these threats. Some participants had an SRO that dealt with violence – active shooters, bomb threats, school fights, or weapons – while others had SROs that primarily dealt with discipline, tardies, or minor drug offenses. The degree to which officers were engaged in direct violence did impact respondent responses, since those that had an SRO who engaged with more violence often thought of them as more beneficial and useful than those whose SRO just wandered the hallways looking for people to discipline.
One of the hardest parts about this research question and the data observed from the interview transcripts is that participants had generally positive experiences with their SRO and negative perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system, and yet managed to frequently abstract their SRO/individual SRO actions from the actions of the larger policing/criminal justice system institution. This is not necessarily a problem, however it is an important pattern to notice, and somewhat does help establish a direct connection between the independent and dependent variables identified – when people had positive interactions, they were more likely to assume that their SRO was “removed” or “unlike” the rest of the police department/criminal justice system. There are quite a few direct examples of this – one participant said that “I don't think anybody ever had a specific vendetta against our specific school resource officer. But I think a lot of people did have this aura of well, he works for the police, he's a policeman at the end of the day”, while another said that:
“no one wants to have a cop around because that's weird, especially with all the connotations that cops have. But I think the ones at my high school did a really good job and I'm really I would not be upset seeing them again. I would not be upset hearing that they're still on campus. I think that they were a positive presence.”
These moments of almost cognitive dissonance within participants led to one of the most profound insights about the relationship between a school resource officer and the education system – seeing their school resource officers as abstracted from the larger criminal justice system allowed participants to think critically about what the role of an SRO should be in the first place. Three participants said virtually identical things about how schools should be places of learning, where an SRO-type figure could either “improve the relationship of marginalized communities, or even just communities in general with policing”, or simply “ be a resource for students, be someone that they can get help from rather than be afraid of.” Rather than serve as an extension of a law enforcement system that many participants expressed distrust and dissatisfaction with, these participants argue that school resource officers should be just that – a resource for students whether that be through mental health services, counseling services, or more informal protective actions that do not require guns or police uniforms.
Another one of the most interesting findings from these interviews is the number of people who expressed deep discontent with the criminal justice system, yet acknowledged the need for protection in schools. One participant stated that even though they do not put a lot of faith or trust into the police system, “when you see things on the news of high schoolers and students dying and being brutally killed in school shootings, in a way, you did feel safer to have a police officer on site.” Another participant emphasized the trauma that is felt within the school setting when students are forced to constantly prepare for active shooter situations, saying that:
“with all of the school shootings, definitely knowing that there were people whose job it is to help know how to protect the school [was helpful]. They were the ones who would walk around and test all of the locks to the doors in the classrooms. I think drills like that are deeply traumatic to school communities. But I was always really happy knowing that I could hear them rattling at the door knob and knowing that they couldn't get in, because they were the ones who taught us and they taught us really well!”
While most participants did echo this sentiment of trauma related to school shootings, two participants in particular focused on the trauma that the presence of school resource officers in general brought, stating that “all of these ‘solutions’ to violence in school, gangs in school, shootings in school… involve strong arm solutions, such as having one door to enter the school or teachers carrying guns, clear backpacks, metal detectors, or more police officers in school. And if anything, the psychological burden of dealing with that every day will exponentially increase.” The other participant stated that watching the criminal justice system work actively against them and their peers encouraged them not to trust resource officers, not to see them as people willing to protect and serve, but instead, willing to put their interests above those of the students.
To investigate one aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline, I chose to investigate how perceptions of fairness about the criminal legal system differ between college students based on social interactions with a school resource officer during their high school education. After conducting a series of eight original interviews using purposive sampling, my results suggest that while interactions between students and SROs did impact the participant perceptions of fairness, these perceptions are not without contributing factors such as preconceived notions and knowledge about the criminal justice system, internal fears about safety in schools, and personal attitudes/relationships with specific officers.
Despite what my research suggests, there are three main limitations in this study that could be addressed in future research. The first is the sample size and representativeness of the said sample – while my interviewees represented a variety of experiences, there is not a way for me to fully represent every college student’s viewpoint or perception. With that, one of the biggest challenges of this study was that the sample I used could not encompass the range necessary for answering my question – people who had frequent negative interactions with SROs did not fill out the survey (or consent to being interviewed). Further, if these negative interactions with SROs led to direct involvement with the criminal justice system, my population sample of college students excludes them. Since the point of my research question is to better understand the criminal justice system, in future iterations of this study, I would change the population to all Americans aged 18-24. While that may be the typical college student age, this change could encompass individuals who are not in college – it could include those who are incarcerated, in the military, who are employed, who are pursuing a different career path, etc. As I mentioned above, one of the biggest limitations in my study is that while discussing the criminal justice system, people who are incarcerated or not in college are removed from the study. By adjusting the population, I would be able to include these viewpoints, which would add more robustness to my analysis.
A second limitation was the inability to rule out race as a confounding variable. When I first thought about race as a confounding variable, I thought that maybe people who identified as students of color may have a more negative perception of both their SRO and the criminal justice system due to their knowledge of the disproportionate treatment and cruelty inflicted on people of color. I originally assumed that those participants might actively avoid their SRO and already have negative perceptions of fairness. In this study, I was not able to rule out race as a confounding variable – the one participant who was African-American/Black did directly state more clear opinions on why they are opposed to the criminal justice system/have extremely negative perceptions when compared to the white participants, however, all participants had virtually identical “problems” that they identified. Everyone noted the sentencing disparities, most people noted the excessive sentences, and most people noted the police brutality. One of the multiracial/biracial participants noted that their race did somewhat impact their treatment when they personally interacted with the criminal justice system, but still, could not identify if their “gentler” treatment was due to their socioeconomic status or their race. For future iterations of this research, I would certainly seek out a more diverse sample size that could more accurately touch on the experience of students of color.
Finally, a limitation could be that my conceptualization and operationalization of my main variables (specifically the dependent variable of perceptions of fairness) were non-exhaustive – there are so many aspects to fairness and perceptions that my study was not able to capture. This non-exhaustive conceptualization allows more room for participant interpretation, and makes the results more inconclusive since the variables are measured slightly differently with each new interview. For example, it would have been helpful to quantify the “quantity of interactions” variable into specific number of interactions over a time span – that could have helped to slightly standardize what participants meant when they said “rare” vs. “frequent” interactions, and thus, could make the study more reliable and accurate. In future iterations of this project, I would recommend adding more questions to fully operationalize, redefine, and diversify the variable components. This would allow for more in-depth understanding and exploration of each of the variables. Since my variables were not fully conceptualized, my analysis is based on a slightly interpretive understanding of the relationships between variables rather than one completely supported by the data.
Under perfect conditions, my study would look different – the pilot survey to purposive sampling method worked well, so I would still do that, however I would have a much larger sample size. This larger sample size would allow more nuance in responses, and would be a better indicator of patterns. While only eight interviews was the plausible and possible amount for this semester, in the future I would definitely increase the sample size.
The work surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline is far from complete – while my project may have shed additional light on issues of school safety or trauma in the school setting, there is much research left to be done related to SROs and their participation in the justice system. For example, more research should be done on how the type of school, socioeconomic status of the school, or the physical location of the school impact SRO interactions and student perceptions of fairness. To do this, more interviews would be conducted and questions would be asked that specifically emphasize participant experiences and understanding of their school in relation to their community.
Furthermore, this research holds more weight than simply that of an assignment. According to Learning For Justice – part of the Southern Poverty Law Center –, “trauma-informed and restorative justice practices are among the beginning models of an equity process to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline” (Conwright, 2022). While larger, more systemic change is necessary to completely eliminate the connection between the criminal justice system and education, prioritizing mental health and treating students with respect and restorative techniques is an immediate way that educators and activists can disconnect the two institutions. One participant – an aspiring educator – frequently discussed the importance of balancing empathy and education, stating that:
“in order to be able to protect students' safety, you have to be able to look at not only the problems that are occurring and the situations that you actually see, but understand what are the causes behind this individual’s [actions] – not only for students but also at a community level. Because that will inform your ability to empathize with the students and how to break through cycles of negative behavior and negative situations.”
The disciplinary practices that land people in juvenile detention centers or prisons have deeply embedded racial structures, and it is vital that educators and resource officers work to resist and rebuild these structures in ways that do not rely on white supremacy. Through this study, I hope to begin to illuminate the connections between school discipline, the role of SROs, and perceptions of fairness within the justice system – imploring both participants and readers to come up with creative strategies for “school discipline” that do not rely on direct interactions with the justice system. To fully create adequate change, school discipline must be reconsidered and resource officers must become just that – resources for students rather than symbols of an oppressive system.
Conwright, A. (2022, October). Decarceration Begins With School Discipline Reform. Learning for Justice. Retrieved December 7, 2022, from https://www.learningforjustice.org/sites/default/files/2022-10/Learning-for-Justice-Magazine-Issue-3-Fall-2022-Web-10202022.pdf.
Criminalization & Racial Disparities. Vera Institute of Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.vera.org/ending-mass-incarceration/criminalization-racial-disparities?ms=awar_comm_all_grant_BS22_ctr_M1
Fagan, J., & Tyler, T. R. (2005). Legal Socialization of Children and Adolescents. Social Justice Research, 18(3), 217–241. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-005-6823-3
German, M. (2020, August). Hidden in plain sight: Racism, white supremacy, and far-right militancy in law enforcement. Brennan Center for Justice. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/hidden-plain-sight-racism-white-supremacy-and-far-right-militancy-law
Grabenstein, H. (2022, May 19). Incarcerated people face barriers to reentry post prison. how One initiative aims to help. PBS. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/incarcerated-people-face-barriers-to-reentry-post-prison-how-one-initiative-aims-to-help
Hinger, S. (2022, August 29). Racial disparities in student arrests is an epidemic affecting children nationwide: News & commentary. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/racial-disparities-student-arrests-epidemic
Nagin, D. S., & Telep, C. W. (2020). Procedural Justice and Legal Compliance. Criminology & Public Policy, 19(3), 761–786. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12499
Sawchuk, S. (2022, June 29). School resource officers (sros), explained. Education Week. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/school-resource-officer-sro-duties-effectiveness
School-to-Prison Pipeline. American Civil Liberties Union. (2022, April 4). Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/juvenile-justice-school-prison-pipeline
Shapiro, E. (2019, June 20). Students of Color are More Likely to be Arrested in School. That May Change. The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/20/nyregion/new-york-schools-police.html
Appendix: Measurement Instrument
Question 1: Are you currently a college/university student?
C. Other (in case of military, trade school, etc)
Question 2: Which of the following best describes you? (TOUCHING ON RACE VARIABLE)
A. White or Caucasian
B. Asian or Pacific Islander
C. African-American or Black
E. Native-American of Alaskan Native
F. Multiracial or Biracial
G. I prefer not to say
Question 3: In what state did you attend high school? [open response]
Question 4: What year did you graduate high school?
A. Before 2019
Question 5: What type of school did you attend? (eg: public, private, boarding, charter, etc.) [open response]
Question 6: Have you heard of the concept of a school resource officer?
Question 7: Did your school that you attended have a school resource officer?
C. Can’t remember/I don’t know
Question 8: Did you interact with the school resource officer at your school? (BEGINS TOUCHING ON INTERACTIONS VARIABLE)
D. Can’t remember/Don’t know
Question 9: Would you be willing to participate in an interview regarding your experiences in high school?
A. Yes [with option for participant to provide contact information]
Question 1: Could you explain what your high school looked like?
— Where was your high school located?
— How close was your high school to your house?
— If you remember, could you approximate how many students were in your graduating class?
— Could you describe the makeup of your school? For example, was your school predominantly white? Was it predominantly students of color? [race demographics]
Question 2: Walk me through a typical day in your life at your high school?
— Who did you hang out with?
— What did you do during your free time/study periods?
— Were you allowed to leave during the day at all?
Question 3: So, in your response to the survey that you completed, you mentioned that your school had a school resource officer. Could you tell me more about this officer?
— Did you know them at all? [interactions with SRO]
— How did you come to know them? [personal attitudes toward SRO]
— How often did you interact with them? [quantity of interactions]
— From your experience, what was their role in the school?
Question 4: You mentioned that you interacted with the SRO _______ (insert how many times they said they interacted/how often). Could you describe to me what these interactions looked like?
— How did these interactions make you feel? [quality of interactions]
— How did these interactions impact your school day?
— Did these interactions occur during the school day? After? During free time? [quantity of interactions]
— Where in the school did these interactions occur?
Question 5: You said in the survey that you had heard of a school resource officer before. Could you tell me where you heard about this concept? [prior knowledge of SRO/criminal justice system]
— Was it simply their presence in the school that alerted you to the concept?
— Did you talk about it with your family? Friends? Social media? [prior knowledge of SRO/criminal justice system]
Question 6: In your opinion, what is the role of a school resource officer? [preconceived notions of criminal justice system]
— How did you get these beliefs?
— What do you believe has shaped your opinion? Parents/friends/social media/etc.
Question 7: How did it make you feel knowing that there was an officer at your school? [quality of interactions, specifically safe/unsafe, protected, etc]
— Did it make you feel safer?
— Was it helpful knowing that there was someone at the school who could potentially deal with a threat if there was one? [quality of interactions; specifically if relationship was helpful; perceptions of fairness in dealing with threats]
Question 8: In your own words, can you tell me what the criminal justice system is? [prior knowledge of criminal justice system]
— as needed, ask about family/friend/important relationships interactions with the criminal justice system [preconceived bias]
— Have you had other interactions with the criminal justice system? [potential counter explanation of outside interactions]
— Have you heard the term mass incarceration? Could you explain what that term means in your own words? [prior knowledge]
Question 9: What is your overall perception of the criminal justice system?
— Meaning, does the criminal justice system and everyone involved in it treat everyone fairly?
[perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system; unbiased/biased]
Question 10: To continue discussing your opinions on the criminal justice system, how do you think the criminal justice system should work? [perceptions of fairness; perceived intention]
- Here are the articles I showed participants: Six Year Old Black Girl Arrested for Tantrum, ‘Heroic’ Illinois Officer Guns Down School Shooter, Robb Elementary shooter was in school for up to an hour before law enforcement broke into room where he was barricaded and killed him, CBS 2 Investigators reveal a student was body-slammed by a school resource officer, and family says police, school tried to cover it up, and 21 arrested, 1 hospitalized after fight at Jefferson County High School
Question 11: Thank you for sharing your experiences with me and answering my questions so far. I only have a few more so as to not take up too much more of your time. Have you heard the term school-to-prison pipeline?
— What role do you believe an SRO has in the school-to-prison pipeline?
— Could you explain what that term means?
Question 12: After going through this interview, have any of your viewpoints on the criminal justice system changed?
 Interview 6
 Interview 7
 Participant 6
 Synthesized information from interviews 1, 6, 7, and 8
 Beyond just having positive interactions, the participant genuinely thinks that the school resource officer is a good person – maybe they interact with them outside of school, see them as a close family friend, etc.
 Interview 7
 Interview 4
 Interview 7
 Interview 1
 Interview 6
 Interview 8
 Interview 8
 Interview 7
 Interview 3
 Interview 4
 Interview 6
 Interview 7
 Interview 2
 Interview 6
 Interview 6
 Interview 7
 Interview 2
 Interview 8
 Interview 4