According to a 2020 statewide survey of Virginia high schools completed prior to the March closure of schools because of COVID-19, most 9th through 12th grade students and staff agree that school resource officers, or SROs, make them feel safer. However, students answered both that question and others differently by racial and ethnic group.
The survey of more than 106,000 students in 299 schools revealed student perceptions varied slightly across racial/ethnic groups, with White students having more favorable views of SROs than other groups; 32.5% of Black students disagreed or strongly disagreed that SROs make them feel safe compared to nearly 25% of White students. The survey also asked students how often they have spoken with the SRO over the past school year, and found a range from weekly or every day (6%) to once or twice a semester (23%) or never (71%).
A sample of 15,707 school staff members revealed 85% somewhat to strongly agreed that SROs make them feel safer at school and 90% somewhat to strongly agreed that SROs make a positive contribution to the school.
The question was part of the annual School Safety Audit that conducts surveys of middle and high schools in alternate years. The 2020 student and staff surveys were administered to Virginia high schools by the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety and were analyzed by the Youth Violence Project, a research team at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.
“In light of the current debate over the role of police officers in schools, it seems appropriate to consider the views of our high school students and staff,” said Dewey Cornell, director of the Youth Violence Project and professor at the Curry School. “Our statewide surveys found that both students and staff have largely positive views of the role of school resource officers in keeping our schools safe. However, there are some important differences across student racial and ethnic groups that should be considered in making our schools a safe and supportive environment for everyone.”
The survey also found that most students feel like they belong at their school and that students are treated fairly regardless of their race or ethnicity. However, White students were more likely to have positive perceptions than students in Black, Hispanic, or other groups.
Of 106,865 students surveyed, 79% of White students agreed or strongly agreed students are treated fairly at school regardless of their race or ethnicity, while 69% of Black students, 73% of Hispanic students and 72% of other race students believed the same. Similarly, statewide, most students agreed that they feel like they belong at their school, but 35% of Black students, 28% of Hispanic students, and 27% of students in the other groups did not feel like they belong, compared to 24% of White students.
Virginia high school students and staff are surveyed every two years, and individual school survey reports are prepared for each school. More information, including one-page research summaries, is available on the project’s website (see Issues no. 18, 19, 20 and 21).
“These survey data provide an opportunity for school leaders to better understand their school climates and how to improve them for every student,” Cornell said. “We urge school administrators to share the results for their school with the entire community.”
Cornell and others at the Youth Violence Project working on the survey have also identified resources for culturally sensitive teaching and disciplinary practices. Among those include reports by the American Psychological Association, American School Counselors Association, and National Association of School Psychologists.