ITP | School Resource Officers and the Definitional Boundaries of Law Enforcement: Understanding the Safety Logic

October 13, 2023, Noon-1:30 pm Central Time

259 Educational Sciences and Zoom

Ben Fisher

Associate Professor, Civil Society & Community Studies, UW-Madison

Ben Fisher

The use of sworn police officers in schools—often called school resource officers (SROs) has become commonplace in U.S. schools. One of the major criticisms of the use of SROs is that they subject students to more and harsher punishment than they would experience otherwise. One reason this may occur is that SROs view a wide range of student behaviors as under their purview as law enforcement agents. However, research has not examined how SROs create boundaries around the role of law enforcement in the school setting. In this study, we investigate how SROs define what counts as law enforcement, what behaviors are actionable, and why they choose to mobilize their law enforcement capabilities. We find that SROs construct definitional boundaries around law enforcement through a theoretical concept that we call the safety logic—where school safety is believed to be constantly under threat from students gone awry. In turn, this safety logic leads officers to construct a fluid and expansive definition of law enforcement that envelops a wide range of (non)criminal student behaviors that they perceive as threatening to school safety.

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