Education

Jefferson County Public Schools will only have nine in-house security officers to cover all 156 schools when the school year begins next week. The Board of Education voted Tuesday night not to renew contracts with local law enforcement agencies, which would have added an additional 11 school resource officers to the district.

The SROs, who are sworn police, are stationed at varying schools throughout the district to protect students and enforce school policies. The board’s vote comes after the Louisville Metro Police Department announced last month that it would pull its 17 officers from schools after budget cuts.

In a news conference Wednesday, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the district is regrouping and determining how to provide support to the 11 schools that were supposed to be staffed with SROs from the Jeffersontown and Shively police departments.

“So we’re having to make adjustments and that’s what we’re doing. It’s my job to do it,” Pollio said. “The board made their decision, and I have to make adjustments based on that.”

Pollio added that the nine remaining in-house officers would be moved from night work to day, and will each be assigned more than one school to patrol. They won’t be in the schools, but stationed outside.

“We’re working hard to ensure security long term; it’s going to be much improved,” he said. “I will once again reiterate, we have mental health professionals in every school where we didn’t last year, so that’s additional support to our schools. Our officers who were working evening will now work during the day to support our schools.”

Pollio announced a plan to the school board last month to increase the number of SROs in the district. It included reassigning the nine in-house officers, as well as adding enough of additional officers this month to cover an additional 13 schools.

Research On SROs Shows Racial Disparities

The use of police in schools has grown exponentially over the past decades. There were fewer than 100 of these school officers in 1970, by 2011 there were up to 30,000 in schools. Nationally, schools spend about $14 billion a year for school safety personnel.

Ben Fisher is an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Louisville who focuses on school safety. He wasn’t at Tuesday’s board meeting, but said he was surprised members voted down the measure that would have renewed the JCPS contract with the Jeffersontown and Shively police departments.

“I know that for at least some of the board members and a lot of the schools, SROs are seen as sort of essential for providing safe spaces for students,” Fisher said.

“That’s even though that’s not necessarily an evidence-based claim, though it’s a very common one across the country, especially in light of national tragedies around gun violence.”

Fisher said he didn’t know of any research into a correlation between the presence of school officers during school shootings and lower death rates during those shootings. There have been more than 230 elementary, middle and high school shootings since 1999, according to data from the Washington Post.

There’s also some controversy over school resource officers: A growing body of research shows racial and socioeconomic differences in how these officers interact and see their jobs based on the student population.

Fisher is publishing research soon illuminating these differences. His team interviewed around 75 school resource officers from two school districts: one urban and with a majority of low-income students of color, and another suburban with a majority of wealthier white students.

Officers at both districts saw their duty as to protect students from intruders and to enforce school policies. But he said the officers who worked at urban schools were focused on enforcing school policies and student disruptions. Officers at the suburban schools saw their role more as keeping students safe from outside threats.

“So the schools that are whiter, the school resource officers when they talked about students as threats, they would say, ‘this is sort of a normative part of adolescent development and kids will be kids,” Fisher said. “Whereas in the black and browner schools, school resource officers articulated it more in terms of the students are coming from a tough background or bad communities.”

These attitudes in part can result in differences in discipline against students, Fisher said, with more arrests and referrals to law enforcement in more urban and minority schools.

The JCPS Board of Education’s vote comes as districts around Kentucky are figuring out how to comply with a new state school safety law. The law requires schools to install more locks and so-called “hard” measures in buildings, but also mandates the hiring of more SROs.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.