First, Do No Harm: How Educators and Police Can Work Together More Effectively to Preserve School Safety and Protect Vulnerable Students

Johanna Wald & Lisa Thurau
Cambridge, MA

Today, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School released a policy brief, entitled, “First, Do No Harm,” (authors Johanna Wald and Lisa Thurau) that examines the history and impact of school resource officer programs, focusing on a series of interviews that the authors conducted in 16 school districts in Massachusetts. The brief identifies the reasons for the large expansion in police presence in schools during the past decade, and summarizes existing research about how the deployment of police in schools has changed school environments. In addition, it offers recommendations for policy reforms intended to maximize the benefits of police presence in schools, while reducing the risk of unnecessary criminalization of vulnerable youths.

Major findings cited in the brief include:

  • Contrary to common assumptions, school resource officers (SROs) deployed in schools adopt a wide continuum of approaches, ranging from strict enforcer of zero tolerance policies, to caseworkers and student advocates.
  • Many school resource officers insist that their permanent presence in schools contributes to a decrease in arrests of students because students come to trust and confide in them.
  • Many school resource officers consider themselves advocates of, and supports for, youths. They attend sporting events and other extra-curricular activities (one hosted a talent show), and identify positive relationship-building with students as being of equal or more importance than the law enforcement aspect of their job.
  • The lack of accurate or detailed data, kept by the police or schools, on school-based arrests and courts summons makes it very difficult to document or quantify the actual impact of police deployment in schools. Reporting on school-based arrests is not required by either the state or federal government, and there is often little systematic review or oversight of school arrest and summons data by police or schools within districts.
  • Decisions about whether to arrest a student or to keep an incident as a school disciplinary matter are often highly subjective, and are the result of the personalities and philosophies of the school resource officers and school officials, rather than of any formal guidelines or protocols. In some instances, these decisions also appear to be related to the location of a school (rural, suburban, urban), and to the degree to which school administrators choose to make use of police.
  • School resource officers are rarely trained in adolescent psychology, mediation, prevalent mental health issues affecting teens, or the effects of trauma, exposure to violence and poverty on student behaviors that could help them to more fully understand the responses of students in the schools where they are deployed.
  • Many school police officers voice frustration that they are often asked by school officials and teachers to intervene in situations which they consider to be more appropriately handled by school disciplinarians.

The policy brief is available online at: For more information, please contact Johanna Wald at 617-495-8087 or Lisa Thurau at 617-714-3789.