Following Data: The “Defund the Police” Movement’s Implications for Elementary and Secondary Schools

Michael Heise & Jason P. Nance | December 15, 2020

Nationwide calls to “Defund the Police,” largely attributable to Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have motivated derivative calls for public school districts to consider “defunding” school resource officer (“SRO/police”) programs. To be sure, school districts’ SRO/police programs endure as a subject of persistent scholarly and public scrutiny, particularly relating to how a school’s SRO/police presence influences the school’s student discipline reporting policies and practices. How schools report student discipline and whether the process involves referrals to law enforcement agencies matter, particularly as they may fuel a growing “school-to-prison pipeline.” The “school-to-prison pipeline” research literature features two general empirical claims. 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. Results from our analyses that draw from 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, provide mixed support for these two claims. We find that a school’s SRO/police presence 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 broad distributional claims. While we take no normative positions on these complex and nuanced issues, we feel empirical evidence should inform the already ongoing legal and public policy debates on the future of school SRO/police programs.


Cite as: Michael Heise & Jason P. Nance, Following Data: The “Defund the Police” Movement’s Implications for Elementary and Secondary Schools, 110 J. Crim. L. & Criminology Online 63 (2020).