Colorado lawmakers have responded to demands to make schools safer with a plan to spend $35 million on school security, including school resource officers. Proponents of this idea see it as basic common sense that having armed law enforcement on school grounds makes them safer – but opponents think they don’t make schools safer, especially for the students who end up arrested or ticketed for what would have been a school discipline matter a generation ago.

A decision by the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee to allocate the money to training for officers and other school employees – and make explicit that it cannot be used to hire additional officers – alleviates one of the concerns opponents had. They’ll be working to nudge more of this money toward approaches they support, like training in restorative justice.

As we wrote about this debate, we realized we had some questions. Like, what exactly is a school resource officer? Are they any different from regular police officers? To whom are they accountable? And why are they controversial?

To answer some of these questions, we talked to Stacey Collis, president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers and a longtime officer at Green Mountain High School in Jeffco Public Schools, and Corrine Rivera-Fowler, director of policy and civic engagement for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, which opposes the expansion of school resource officers. Here’s what we learned.

Is a school resource officer a police officer?

Yes. They’re sworn officers who are employed by law enforcement agencies and go through the same certification process as other police officers. Collis does make a distinction between the way school resources officers approach the law-enforcement aspect of their job and the way cops on the street would. Campus officers usually have special training and choose to work in schools.

“Yes, we are law enforcement, and sometimes we have to react with tickets or arrests, but we try to deal with things at the lowest level that we can because students are in that learning curve,” he said. As a resource officer, Collis said he’s more likely to call a student’s parents or refer them to a restorative justice program than to make an arrest.

Rivera-Fowler said the fact that officers have discretion doesn’t make them any less an arm of law enforcement.

“They are cops,” she said. “They can choose to give you a warning or write you a ticket or handcuff you, just like any police officer.”

Some districts also employ campus security guards who are not police officers.

Are school resource officers armed?

Yes. Collis said some districts have occasionally had discussions about having unarmed resource officers – and some schools use unarmed security personnel – but he has a hard time imagining working without a gun.

“God forbid, if something does happen, they have that right there to deal with that situation, and hopefully deal with it effectively,” he said.

Do school resource officers work for the school district or the law enforcement agency?

School resource officers work for the law enforcement agency, and their chain of command runs through that agency. They are not under the authority of a building principal, and Collis describes himself “on equal footing” with school leadership.

“I don’t take orders from them, and they wouldn’t try to do that,” he said. “I don’t do school discipline. That’s not for me. I handle situations that may become criminal.”

That’s one of the problems, from Rivera-Fowler’s perspective. There are lots of gray areas between criminal and disciplinary matters, and by having resource officers, schools lose the ability to make their own decisions.

Intergovernmental agreements between police or sheriff’s departments and school districts lay out the responsibilities of each party, and in Denver, Padres & Jóvenes gets involved in negotiating this contract in an effort to more narrowly define the role of police officers in schools.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, also has its own Department of Safety patrol officers, in addition to 16 school resource officers from the Denver Police Department.

Who decides if a problem should be handled as a disciplinary matter or a criminal matter?

Charges are ultimately decided by prosecutors, but on the ground, the officer uses his or her judgment about which cases to treat as criminal.

Why does this matter?

This question is at the heart of the debate over school resource officers. Advocacy groups like Padres & Jóvenes Unidos say the vast majority of incidents at schools can and should be handled as disciplinary matters. Nearly any fight that turns physical can technically be charged as assault, as can possession of small amounts of drugs, trespassing, and so on, but going that route gets students involved with the criminal justice system – and for some students, particularly those of color, that can turn into a cycle that derails their life.

At the same time, school resource officers have been criticized for taking a light touch at the expense of victims. In Fox 31’s recent investigation of the Cherry Creek school district’s handling of sexual assault complaints, reporters obtained a previously confidential incident report in which a school resource officer wrote: “I issued (redacted) a written warning for sexual assault and explained to him about his behavior and how it could get him into future trouble. I explained that if a girl or woman says stop or no, it means exactly that. I advised him that (redacted) did not want him charged as they used to be friends, but if she had, it would have been serious.”

Collis said he’s seen fights that involve weapons and serious bodily injury, and sometimes criminal charges are appropriate. He stressed that juvenile offenders almost always get community service or are ordered to treatment, like anger management or substance abuse treatment. Charges can be expunged if they follow the rules.

But a failure to show up in court can turn into an arrest warrant, which is one reason advocacy groups argue for handling more problems within the school.

“Any time you expose a young person to the criminal justice, you’re exposing them to various harms that impact their future,” Rivera-Fowler said. “Students don’t understand the weight of that ticket and that order to appear in court. They may not even inform their parents, or their parents may be busy and forget. They do get a warrant out for their arrest.”

For students who are undocumented or in mixed-status families, that harm can extend all the way to deportation. And charges, once filed, can take on a life of their own.

In 2016, a 14-year-old student at Denver’s Northfield High was dragged from the bathroom, handcuffed, and ultimately charged with resisting arrest because she wore a headband that the principal said violated the dress code and didn’t immediately take it off. The officer and the principal in question were fired, but charges against the student weren’t dropped until months later, after audio emerged of the officer saying the student did not resist arrest.

Why do schools need their own police officers?

Groups like Padres & Jóvenes would argue that they don’t. Rivera-Fowler said having police in schools introduces tension and anxiety that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Even the most law-abiding citizen gets nervous when a police car is driving behind them, she said, and students in hallways are no different.

Collis sees high schools as the equivalent of small cities.

“That small city is going to have the law enforcement issues that any small city does,” he said. “You’re dealing with traffic, you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with fights, you’re dealing with sex assaults. You’re dealing with everything. And just like an officer in a small town needs to understand, you live there. There are things you have to bend on, and you need to know the right approach.”

Collis argues there’s a benefit to having an officer on site who knows the students.

“If you do have a serious situation and you call an officer, will they know how to deal with that?” he asks. “Will they deal with it appropriately or will they deal with it like they would on the street, without the insight that comes from knowing the kids?”

How are school resource officers trained?

The agency that certifies police officers in Colorado requires that every department have at least one officer that goes through a special 40-hour training to work in schools, and Collis said most of the state’s more than 200 school resource officers have gone through that training. Many also have additional training focused on issues like suicide risk assessment, understanding mental health issues, and single-officer response to violent incidents.

Padres & Jóvenes would like to see officers have training in restorative justice practices.

What do school resource officers do all day?

How the officer fills his or her time varies from school to school, but Collis said it’s a busy job. In addition to his law enforcement duties, he teaches classes on things like distracted driving and healthy relationships. Or he might bring an officer with expertise in accident investigation to talk to a math class. And all day long, there’s a string of students, teachers, and administrators who want to talk, he said. A student might want to vent about a classmate she wants to fight, or a teacher might want to touch base about a student who seems troubled. 

Are there racial disparities in how school resource officers handle infractions?

An analysis of police referrals during the 2015-16 school year by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos didn’t break out who was getting ticketed or arrested by race and ethnicity, but it did find that schools and districts with a high percentage of students of color had much higher rates of tickets and arrests than majority-white schools. Statewide, 1,245 students were arrested that school year and 5,482 received tickets.

“There is always more enforcement happening in schools of color,” Rivera-Fowler said. “We have seen that since the expansion of school resource officers.”

Can school resource officers stop school shootings?

School resource officers have confronted shooters in schools, as in the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting and in the March shooting in a Maryland high school. It’s certainly possible that their response prevented more deaths, but in both cases, the shooters managed to kill fellow students before turning their guns on themselves.

Padres & Jóvenes argues that real school safety comes from investing in social workers and counselors and promoting restorative justice. If the legislature is going to put more money into school safety, they want it used to better identify troubled students and get them help early.

Hiring more school resource officers “does nothing to prevent a shooting or make a school safer, from our point of view and from the history of school shootings,” Rivera-Fowler said. “We’re wondering why we aren’t using these funds to ensure our students are actually safer and making sure our students are getting the mental health supports that they need.”

Collis sees school resource officers as one piece of a bigger picture that includes better building security but also cultural changes within school communities, so that parents are more involved and students are more likely to speak up when something is wrong.