“Defund the (School) Police”?: Bringing Data to Key School-to-Prison Pipeline Claims

Source: Michael Heise, Jason P. Nance, Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper 20-23, August 23, 2020

From the abstract:
Calls across the nation to “Defund the Police,” largely attributable to the resurgent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, motivated derivative calls for public school districts to consider “defunding” (or, at the very least, revisit or modify) school resource officer (“SRO/police”) programs. To be sure, a school’s SRO/police presence—and the size of that presence—may influence the school’s student discipline reporting policies and practices. How schools report student discipline and whether it involves referrals to law enforcement agencies matter, particularly as it may fuel a growing “school-to-prison pipeline.” The “school-to-prison pipeline” research literature features two general claims that frame key debates about changes in how public schools approach student discipline and the growing calls to defund school resource officer programs. One is that public schools’ increasingly “legalized” approach toward student discipline increases the probability that students will be thrust into the criminal justice system. A second, distributional claim is that these adverse consequences disproportionately involve students of color, boys, students from low-income households, and other vulnerable student sub-groups. Both claims include important legal and policy dimensions as students’ adverse interactions with law enforcement agencies typically impose negative consequences on students and their futures. We subject both claims to the nation’s leading data set on public school crime and safety, supplemented by data on state-level mandatory reporting requirements and district-level per pupil spending, and explore three distinct analytic approaches in an effort to better isolate the possible independent influence of a school’s SRO/police presence on that school’s student discipline reporting behavior. Results from our analyses, largely robust to various analytical approaches, provide mixed support for the two claims. Specifically, and largely consistent with prior research, we find that a SRO/police presence at a school corresponds with an increased probability that the school will report student incidents to law enforcement agencies. However, we do not find support in the school-level data for the distributional claim.