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The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Roles of School-Based Law Enforcement Officers May Impact Disciplinary Actions

Published onNov 01, 2016
The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Roles of School-Based Law Enforcement Officers May Impact Disciplinary Actions


The presence of law enforcement officers in schools has generated an overwhelming amount of concern among educators, parents, researchers, and policy-makers. It is believed their mere presence in schools is associated with the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP), which suggests that the use of police criminalizes minor student behavior and pushes them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. However, it remains unclear as to what impact law enforcement officers truly have on this phenomenon. The purpose of this study is to examine the impact of law enforcement officers on the STPP in relation to the roles they are assigned. We argue that an officer’s role impacts how they choose to respond to student misconduct, which ultimately could impact this pipeline. Interviews were conducted with school-based law enforcement officers in Texas and each was analyzed to identify common themes. The findings suggest a difference between the disciplinary actions officers perform compared to alternative disciplinary actions they believe would be more effective for handling different types of student infractions. The findings also suggest an association between the roles officers have and the types of disciplinary action they perform, which has direct implications for examining and addressing the STPP. Future research should focus on assessing a relationship between the types of training officers receive and the roles in which they are tasked.


In the last decade, the increasing presence of law enforcement officers in schools as a strategy to address school safety has generated an overwhelming amount of concern among educators, parents, researchers, and policymakers. Although the use of this strategy has increased among schools, often propelled by highly publicized school shootings, it has also been associated with the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” (Dohrn, 2002; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Theriot, 2009). The concept suggests that the mere use of police officers in schools criminalizes minor student behavior, and results in severe punishment(s) that typically involves adjudication through the formal justice system (Theriot, 2009). Addressing relatively minor offenses through legal approaches, such as ticketing, arrest, and court referrals, can have serious implications for students who are subjected to these types of responses by law enforcement officers in schools (Wolf, 2013).

These forms of discipline often result in removal from the educational setting, which can negatively impact future educational and career opportunities as well as promote perpetual involvement in the criminal justice system (Wolf, 2013). Specifically, a vast amount of research suggests that students who experience legal punishment are more likely to suffer from low academic performance or drop out of school (see Kang-Brown, Trone, Fratello, & Daftary-Kapur, 2013; Lee, Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2011; Stearns & Glennie, 2006; Suh, Suh, & Houston, 2007; Sweeten, 2006). Further, reports indicate certain student populations (e.g., African American, disabled, and LGBT) are disproportionally disciplined compared to their peers (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Himmelstein & Bruckner, 2010; Skiba, Horner, Chung, Raush, May, & Tobin, 2011; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). Therefore, these groups of students may be at an even greater risk of experiencing the long-term consequences of their punishment.

These more punitive discipline outcomes for all students are believed to be attributed in part to the increased presence of law enforcement officers in schools; however, we believe other factors must be considered prior to making such a determination. One such factor is the roles that school-based law enforcement officers (SBLE) have in a school setting. That is, the role an officer is given likely influences the types of responses they employ when addressing student misconduct. For instance, if an officer is tasked strictly in a law enforcement capacity, one would expect that they would use the legal tools that they have been trained to use (i.e., arrest and ticketing) when addressing student misconduct. However, if an officer is tasked with a counseling-focused role, they may use other alternatives such as de-escalation techniques or some form of positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS). The roles officers have in a school setting vary and may correspond with certain approaches to student discipline.

These roles are also often established through a collaborative approach between school administrators and police leadership (McKenna, Martinez-Prather, & Bowman, 2014). However, it is possible this collaboration may produce roles that lead to an over-reliance on SBLEs, which results in police officers handling issues more appropriate for school administrators. For instance, if an officer is expected and trained to fill a strictly law enforcement role, yet they are constantly called on by administrators and other school staff to address code of conduct violations that are not criminal in nature, it is likely they may respond with what they know as their role, which is a legal response (i.e., arrest or ticket). This could lead to officers handling situations of student misconduct that do not fall in line with their role or training.

The most documented and accepted model for integrating police officers in a school setting is known as the “triad model,” which provides officers with three main functions: (a) enforcement, (b) education, and (c) mentoring (Kennedy, 2001). However, prior research (Dohrn, 2002; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Theriot, 2009) that has indicated a relationship between the use of law enforcement in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline does not consider how the roles of SBLEs may impact this relationship. Thus, the negative contribution of law enforcement officers to the pipeline may be a function of the roles they play, and not their mere presence in schools.

Literature review

A shift toward more punitive school discipline

The implementation of zero-tolerance policies was originally a strategy developed to succor state and federal drug enforcement policies in the 1980s (American Psychological Association (APA) Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Skiba & Rausch, 2006; Teske, 2011). In the 1990s, however, zero-tolerance approaches were adopted by schools as a way to address violence and drugs, and were accompanied by an assortment of school discipline techniques, most notably out-of-school suspensions (OSS) (Teske, 2011). The philosophy behind zero-tolerance in schools describes a system of fixed punitive strategies toward addressing school disorder or a “one size fits all” punishment, even for minor infractions (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008). This approach is rooted in broken windows theory, which posits that crime prevention is best accomplished by punitively targeting minor offenses to deter an escalation of more serious crimes (Teske, 2011; Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

The APA Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008), however, suggests the use of zero-tolerance policies in schools is excessive and ineffective. For example, minor school infractions, such as truancy or classroom disruptions, may be punished unduly with OSS. Additionally, the counterproductive nature of zero-tolerance policies is evident in the punishment of suspending a student from school for truancy, who does not want to be in school in the first place (Teske, Huff, & Graves, 2013). Supporters of zero tolerance policies have suggested that these types of policies are needed in order to remove the threat immediately (i.e., the violent student) as well as send a deterrent message   to other students who may consider acting in a similar way (APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008). However, no research has been conducted to test the impact or effectiveness of these claims. Additionally, Gregory and Cornell (2009) concluded that zero-tolerance policies, from a developmental perspective and process, are not in line with what adolescents need. Specifically, relying on prior research conducted on different parenting styles, they concluded that children of authoritative parents have shown negative outcomes in several different areas (e.g., academic and social). Gregory and Cornell (2009) further suggested that these findings should be applied to the school setting in order to implement a discipline system that accounts for both structure and support. Based upon this research, they proposed an alternative approach to discipline that provides for support rather than control, while also allowing for structure.

Recently, zero-tolerance policies have been further intensified with the increased placement of police officers in schools, who have been viewed as criminalizing student misbehavior through arrests, ticketing, and court referrals (Teske et al., 2013). A study of Clayton County, Georgia, middle and high school campuses found that, after placing police officers in schools during the mid-1990s, the number of juvenile court referrals had increased by 1,248% by the year 2004 (Teske, 2011). Many of these court referrals were for minor offenses previously addressed by school personnel. As zero-tolerance policies continue to extend to a broad range of student misconduct (e.g., dress code violations, swearing, and talking back to a teacher), school police officers are being tasked, often under the direction of school administration, with handling misbehavior that is arguably more appropriate for educators to address (Brown, 2006; Martinez, 2009).

Despite the evidence of negative effects on students, schools, and the courts, teachers and school administrators are increasingly relying on zero-tolerance policies coupled with SBLEs for rule and/or law enforcement functions in schools (Price, 2009). Behavior problems that were once handled by teachers and school administrators are now being referred to SBLEs, with the increased likelihood of arrest and/or other legal sanctions (Theriot, 2009). Further, Dohrn (2002) stated that teachers are frequently relying on SBLEs to handle discipline issues in class and failing to work with students that may need attention as was typically given in the past. Meiners (2011) suggested this may be because teachers do not know what to do with disruptive students. Therefore, the presence and use of law enforcement officers provide a sense of safety in the school.

The rigid implementation of zero-tolerance strategies has also stymied school police officers’ use of discretion for handling incidents on a case by case basis, resulting in more punitive responses such as ticketing or arrests (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008). The use of SBLEs has been found to redefine the discipline philosophy of a campus and make it criminal in nature. In other words, behavior problems and students become the responsibility of the criminal justice system and are  no longer social, psychological, or academic issues. This ultimately increases the likelihood of arrest and/or formal prosecution in the justice system (Na & Gottfredson, 2011). Subsequently, the use of officers in schools has been highlighted as one of the key components influencing the school-to-prison pipeline (Dohrn, 2002; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Theriot, 2009). It appears the increased use of police, combined with zero-tolerance policies, creates a school environment that lends itself to addressing student misconduct with more punitive discipline.

The school-to-prison pipeline

This more punitive environment has led schools to utilize measures that refer students engaging in problem behavior, especially minor infractions, to the formal legal system rather than handling them through traditional measures (e.g., detention). This concept has been coined the “school-to-prison pipeline” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; Fowler, 2011; Meiners, 2011; Wald & Losen, 2003). The American Civil Liberties Union (2008, p.1) defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “the policies and practices that push school children, especially the most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” One particular practice that has been identified as contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline is the mere use of law enforcement in the school environment. Dohrn (2002) concluded that the use of police in schools creates a “prison-like” environment. Similarly, Meiners (2011) stated that on-site police officers give the campus environment the feel of a juvenile detention center rather than a school and concluded that placing officers in schools will not make them safer and will only increase the school-to-prison pipeline. The evidence supporting criminalization of minor misconduct and the increased use of legal punishments in schools (Dohrn, 2002; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Rimer, 2004; Theriot, 2009) provides support for the suggested influence that SBLEs are having on the school-to-prison pipeline (e.g., increased arrest, citation, and other formal sanctions).

Several high profile cases have illustrated the criminalization of minor student misconduct. In 2005, a kindergarten student threw a temper tantrum twice in one week. The school principal called the SBLE officer for the district to discipline the student. The officer placed the five-year-old in handcuffs and escorted her out of the school where she was placed in the back of a patrol car for several hours (Price, 2009). Rimer (2004) described another incident where a middle school student was arrested and held at the police station for violating the school dress code. Additionally, Rimer (2004) notes a 12-year-old was detained in an adult detention facility for making terroristic threats that encompassed telling peers in the lunch line that he would “get them” if they took the last of the potatoes.

Furthermore, empirical research has demonstrated the increasing use of arrest, legal sanctions, and more punitive punishments in schools.1 For instance, Rimer (2004) reported that between 2000 and 2002 the number of arrests, per school year, in Ohio County schools increased by over 500. This increase in the number of arrests per school year occurred without a significant change in student enrollment. Similarly, the number of arrests that occurred in Miami-Dade County schools increased by over 4,000 in just two years. Fowler (2011) reported that in Texas schools during the 20092010 academic year, the majority of incidents where a student was removed from the classroom for disruptive behavior involved no injury or weapon. In addition, 68% of referrals to alternative schools and 72% of expulsions were discretionary and not mandated by state policy. Fowler (2011) also reported that students in Texas and around the nation are increasingly receiving tickets for minor misbehavior and/or being sent to the formal justice  system where they receive a criminal record and other legal punishments. In 2013, Texas passed two laws that prevented police officers from ticketing Class C misdemeanors occurring on school property. According to the Texas Office of Court Administration (2008), court records suggest a decrease in the ticketing and court referral of students; however, educators and SBLEs argue that this severely limits their discretion when addressing crime in the school environment.

The negative effects of the school-to-prison-pipeline have been seen to have an even greater influence on minority and disabled students. Wald and Losen (2003) stated that public school systems have long been plagued by inequalities along lines of race and class, and school discipline is showing to be no different. Meiners (2011) concluded that minority students and those with a disability are more likely to be arrested and/or referred to the justice system. Further, Fowler (2011) reported that a school’s decision to categorize a student’s behavior as criminal disproportionately involves African American and disabled students. This holds true even when rates of misbehavior are controlled for various racial/ethnic categories and non-disabled students.

For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014), African American students represent 16% of the U.S. student enrollment, yet they account for 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students arrested at school. This is compared to White students who make up 51% of the student enrollment and account  for 41% of referrals to law enforcement and 39% of school-based arrests. Similarly, students with disabilities or special needs make up 12% of student enrollment, yet over 25% of these students are referred to law enforcement and/or arrested at school. In addition, the behaviors for which minorities and disabled students are punished (often very harshly) are typically less serious than those of White students and non-disabled students. Wald and Losen (2003) reported that the failure to provide appropriate interventions are likely contributing to delinquency and other problem behaviors among these populations of students.

Roles of SBLEs and their impact on the school-to-prison pipeline

The most accepted model for implementing policing in schools is the triad model. As previously mentioned, this model provides school police officers with three main roles: (a) enforcement, (b) education, and (c) mentoring (Kennedy, 2001). Enforcement consists of crime prevention, school discipline, and arrest, such as patrolling school grounds and handling student violations of school rules or the law (Lawrence, 2007). Education involves police officers engaging in classroom instruction on such topics as drug and alcohol prevention and juvenile law (Weiler & Cray, 2011). Lastly, mentoring involves assisting students and families with law-related issues or acting as a law-related counselor by providing advice on various topics (Wieler & Cray, 2011). More recently, research has suggested an evolution to the traditional triad model, offering additional roles law enforcement may have in schools. Interviews with SBLEs regarding the roles they have and the roles they believe they should have in a school setting parallel the triad model to an extent (McKenna et al., 2014). A role officers reported they also provide is that of a surrogate parent, which involves providing emotional support and material items, such as clothing and school supplies for students. In addition to the triad model, a role officers believe they should have is that of a social worker. Overall, the majority of officers not only reported acting in a law enforcement role, but also reported that they believed law enforcement should be their role in schools (McKenna et al., 2014).

Based on the triad-model and the documented expansion of officer roles, it is clear that the roles of SBLEs in a school setting vary, and likely have the potential to impact the school-to-prison pipeline. That is, the role an officer is given likely influences the types of responses they employ when addressing student misconduct. Each of these roles has an inherent set of duties and actions as it relates to addressing student misconduct. For instance, a law enforcer role requires specific ways of handling misbehavior (which often   is and should be limited to criminal behavior), such as the power to arrest, write a citation, and use physical force. To the contrary, an officer filling an educator or counselor role may be expected to address a wider scope of student misbehavior and use other strategies such as mentoring the student or educating them on proper behavior. What role an officer has can influence how they respond to student misconduct, which likely will have an impact, either positive or negative, on the pipeline. However, prior research that has indicated a relationship between the use of law enforcement in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline has yet to examine how specific roles impact this suggested relationship.

These varying roles, especially the emphasis on enforcement, are interesting, considering the training officers receive. While traditional police academies do not provide specialized training in school-based law enforcement, it is understood that SBLEs engage in different tasks and roles when compared to municipal police (Brown, 2006; McKenna & Pollock, 2014). These roles, which are often established in collaboration with school administration (McKenna et al., 2014) can generate potential role conflicts when addressing incidents of school disorder. Specifically, although this collaboration is necessary and beneficial in other respects, it may place officers in situations that are not typical for law enforcement, resulting in a law enforcement response (e.g., arrest) to an incident that is more conducive to an education or mentoring reaction. For instance, if an officer has no training other than law enforcement training, it should be expected that they will address situations as officers of the law. Therefore, if they are called to handle  a student who is being disruptive in class, it is likely they will detain the student if needed. However, it is possible that the school setting calls for a different response to this behavior that is less punitive. If this is the case, then we must examine and address the roles and training officers have in this environment, and focus less on their mere existence in schools.

With the increase of police officers in schools, combined with the majority engaging in a law enforcement role, the criminalization of student misconduct is more likely to occur (Teske et al., 2013; Wolfe, 2013). Such punitive measures conducted by police, however, are exacerbated by zero-tolerance policies that can lead to arresting patterns that are similar to those of municipal law enforcement. In these situations, it must be anticipated that police officers in schools will rely on their training and knowledge as a law enforcement officer and resort to what they know, being an officer of the law. Therefore, SBLEs should be provided the training to act in capacities other than law enforcement, or be used when only a law enforcement action is required (Elias, 2013).

The present study

Although prior literature has highlighted evidence to support the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline as well as its negative consequences on students, the impact law enforcement officers have on this phenomenon still remains unclear. Despite the literature associating the mere use of law enforcement with the school-to-prison pipeline, the majority of research fails to consider or control for other variables that could potentially impact this relationship. For instance, the roles officers are given (i.e., enforcement, education, and/or mentor), often by or in conjunction with school administrators, likely impacts their actions (i.e., arrest, educate, and/or counsel) when called to an incident, which has implications for the larger school-to-prison pipeline. Therefore, it is possible that changing the roles officers play in the school environment, rather than dismissing them from schools completely, could have significant implications toward curbing the ever-growing school-to-prison pipeline (Theriot, 2009).

In an effort to address the gaps in prior literature and provide a more in-depth understanding for both researchers and practitioners, this study examines the impact of school-based law enforcement officers on the school-to-prison pipeline in relation to the roles they are assigned in schools. To  the knowledge of the researchers, no study to date has examined how an officer’s role in the school environment impacts his or her actions in terms  of discipline or enforcement, and ultimately how the officer’s role affects the officer’s contribution, or lack thereof, to the school-to-prison pipeline. Therefore, because little is known about this relationship, a qualitative methodology is most appropriate and will likely produce a more in-depth examination of this potential phenomenon. The use of this methodology, despite its obvious limitation of generalizability, is a necessary first step in understanding how an officer’s role may impact the pipeline and will likely inform future quantitative studies. By nature, qualitative methodologies allow for a greater level of detail to be captured; therefore, we believe this approach is both appropriate and warranted.

Research methods

The methodological procedures and data for this study stem from a larger data collection effort that involved interviewing SBLEs across Texas. The participants were SBLEs in Texas who were commissioned peace officers employed by an Independent School District (ISD) police department. For this study, only SBLEs were of interest, rather than the broader spectrum of officers working in schools throughout the state of Texas. For instance, traditional School Resource Officers (SROs) were not included in the participant sample.2 The decision to focus solely on SBLEs rather than all officers working in schools was based on the researchers’ ability to obtain preliminary information, including contact information, on the various types of officers working in schools.

Specifically, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE), a state agency that oversees the training, education, and licensure of all Texas peace officers, collects detailed records on all Texas police departments, including those established by an ISD. Therefore, an open records request was submitted to TCOLE in an effort to obtain a comprehensive list of all ISD police departments in Texas as well as a primary point of contact (typically the ISD police Chief) for these departments. A total of 180 police departments run by an ISD were identified. There are no data collected by TCOLE or any other state agency that can be used to determine if local and/or county police departments are providing officers in  the form of  SROs  to ISDs who do not have their own police department. Consequently, only police departments run by an ISD were included on the list provided. All officers employed by these 180 ISD police departments ultimately made up the study’s participant population.

Participant sample

The sampling strategy used was one of convenience. The officer serving as a primary point of contact for each of the 180 departments, provided by TCOLE, was contacted via email. The email correspondence detailed the purpose of the research, the nature of the interview questions, and asked the department to provide the researchers with a list of officers, along with contact information, who would be willing to participate in the study. Additionally, the researchers attended the 2013 Texas School-Based Law Enforcement Conference in an effort to recruit ISD police departments and their officers (included on the list provided by TCOLE) to participate in the research study. This conference was a desirable location to reach such departments as the target audience for the conference was law enforcement officers currently working in the school environment. In total, 15 ISD police departments in Texas responded to these initial correspondences. Of the departments that responded, four indicated that they were no longer established as a police department under the control of the ISD and were, therefore, removed. The remaining 11 ISD police departments agreed to participate in the study.

Prior to conducting interviews with the identified participants, information was collected from the Texas Education Agency, the state education entity that oversees the development of statewide curriculum, data collection, and monitoring for compliance, in regard to the demographics of the districts that agreed to participate. Specifically, this information was obtained using the agency’s Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). This system contains all information collected by the agency from public school districts in Texas, including student, campus, and district demographic information, as well as data regarding academic performance, personnel, finances, organizational structure, and student discipline.

The demographic items of interest included district cumulative enrollment, percent non-White, percent free/reduced lunch, and community type. The majority of districts (seven) had a cumulative enrollment of over 10,000 students, whereas three districts had a cumulative enrollment between 1,000 and 10,000, and one district less than 1,000. The majority of the districts (eight) had a non-White student population greater than 60%. Additionally, these eight districts also provided free/reduced lunch  to more than 50% of their students. The community type designations established by TEA include “major urban,” “major suburban,” “rural,” “independent town,” “non-metropolitan fast growing,” “non-metropolitan stable,” “other central city,” and “other central city urban.” Independent town, non-metropolitan fast growing, non-metropolitan stable, other central city, and other central city urban were collapsed into “other.” In total, one district was classified as major urban, two districts as major suburban, and eight as other.

After obtaining district demographic information, the researchers reached out to each of the officers identified by the primary point of contact from each of the 11 departments. A total of 106 officers were emailed and asked to participate in the study across all 11 departments. Only 26 SBLEs responded to the email and agreed to participate, and were subsequently interviewed. Two follow-up email attempts were made by the researchers to recruit additional participation; however, the remaining 80 officers that were emailed did not respond to any of the requests to participate in an interview. Two of the interviews were conducted in person  at the 2013 Texas School-Based Law Enforcement Conference, whereas the remainder were done via telephone. Each interview was approximately 45 to 60 minutes in length.

Data Collection

A series of open-ended interview questions were used. These questions incorporated broad indicators that were utilized in the principal questionnaire component of the School Survey on Crime and Safety, which asked administrators about the roles of school security personnel, including police officers (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). SBLEs were asked questions such as the following:

  • Describe the types of discipline actions you most commonly employ on students?

  • What would you describe as alternative ways of punishing students compared to the ones that currently exist in your campus (if you believe there should be one)?

The interview questions, as a whole, were piloted with a convenience sample of SBLE officers from departments separate from those participating in the final study, and included both small and  large districts. A  total of eight SBLE officers, representing six different districts, participated in the pilot study. The purpose of the pilot study was to identify and remedy issues involving disparity in question interpretation, as well as solicit feedback from respondents to help improve the overall instrument and individual items.


Each interview was transcribed into NVivo10, a software program that organizes and assists with the analysis of non-numeric data (Bazeley & Jackson, 2013). As part of the analysis, each of the interview questions was coded into themes and concepts based on common phrases provided by the SBLEs responses. The interviews were coded by the two primary researchers. The inter-rater reliability of coding measures was calculated to maximize agreement between the two coders. A test for inter-rater reliability resulted in a Cohen’s Kappa of 0.85; hence a consensus in interpretation of the data between the two coders was reached 85% of the time.

This value of Cohen’s Kappa (e.g., 0.85) is considered to be an “excellent” or “almost perfect” level of agreement by most established guidelines (Fleiss, Levin, & Paik, 2003; Landis & Koch, 1977). A Cohen’s Kappa measure below 0.85 was found in two of the interviews. Consequently, these interviews were re-coded to reflect a consensus of 85% or greater between the coders.

Disciplinary actions employed

In order to identify the types of discipline administered in a school setting, SBLEs were asked to describe the most common forms of discipline they employed on students. An analysis of the responses identified three types  of disciplinary actions used by officers on students in a school setting: (a) counseling, (b) legal intervention, and (c) referral to administration. The most commonly described corrective approach implemented by SBLEs was identified as counseling, followed closely by legal intervention. The least employed disciplinary strategy used by SBLEs was referral to administration. These disciplinary approaches are contingent, for the most part, on the type of offense committed by a student. Table 1 presents the number and percentage of officers that reported these categories of disciplinary styles.

Table 1. Disciplinary actions performed by SBLE officers

Disciplinary action

Number of officers

Percentage of officers




Legal intervention



Referral to administration



Note: Respondents were able to select more than one disciplinary action; therefore, the aggregate percentage exceeds 100%.


The majority of SBLE officers (58%) reported a disciplinary response reflective of a counseling approach when dealing with student infractions. Counseling methods were identified as talking with students and educating them on what they did wrong, as opposed to addressing an infraction automatically with formal sanctions (e.g., referral to administration or legal intervention). The majority of officers believed in communicating with students one-on-one to address and identify the root cause of the misbehavior. Some of the responses also indicated counseling was a more effective intervention for preventing serious offenses among students. In what follows, officers describe their most common approaches to discipline under this strategy:

I remove them from class and speak to them about what is going on … I get both sides of the story to understand the situation. You have to make them [students] think about their actions and help them to understand why it is wrong.—Officer C

We try not to criminalize behavior because we understand they are kids and need to learn from their mistakes. We try not to lose sight that these are kids and that this is a learning process for them.—Officer E

You must focus on what the student did wrong and have them learn from what they did … punishment without learning is not enough.—Officer P

I educate them on what they did wrong and why they are in trouble … I try to find out what is causing the behavior.—Officer C

Most principals want tickets given to students every time, but that will not fix the problem. After a few warnings, citations, or arrests, you have to start looking at a situation to mentor or counsel a student to find out what is really going on.—Officer N

The second most common type of disciplinary approach performed by SBLEs (54%) involved legal interventions. Legal interventions were identified as ticketing, arresting, or referring a student to a juvenile court. These approaches, however, were applied to more serious offenses. For example, officers explained legal interventions were employed when an actual crime violation was committed by a student.

For more serious criminal activity that has to do with assaults, we will write a ticket in every instance.—Officer B

We only handle violations of the law.—Officer I

Serious crimes, like breaking and entering, assault, and weapons are going to have an arrest because we are protecting the school and ensuring safety, which is our main job.—Officer N

Police act, as they should, according to the Texas law just as local departments do.—Officer Q

If a crime occurs, legal intervention will occur. Drugs and felonies will have formal punishment no matter what.—Officer Y

Depending on the situation, whether serious or less serious, some incidents should be handled by administration, but more serious incidents need to be handled by law enforcement.—Officer Z

One officer expressed that zero-tolerance policies ultimately influence their response toward a more legal intervention, which prevents the use of discretion in handling incidents.

Zero-tolerance policies hamstring our officers and eliminate the use of our own common sense when dealing with situations. These policies are well-intended, but cannot be implemented black and white.—Officer O

Referral to administration

To a lesser extent (27%), officers reported referral to school administration as a method of disciplinary action. Officers would take on the responsibility of writing the student up and having them sent to the principal’s office so that school administration could oversee punishment.

I do the same thing a teacher would. I’ll write them [students] up and send them to the principal’s office. Our write-ups usually have more pull with a principal than a teacher’s would.—Officer A

We will always talk to students first, but we like to refer them to administration so that they can handle the discipline ultimately.—Officer E

Alternative disciplinary actions

SBLE officers were asked to describe alternative disciplinary actions they believed would be more effective or appropriate for handling different types of student infractions. Similar to what they reported to perform in a school setting, SBLEs believed counseling should be used most often, whereas legal interventions were best applied in more serious cases (i.e., criminal activity). However, some officers proposed a third alternative that focused more on student accountability, which was described as punishment that required direct consequences for students (e.g., community service or restricting activities and time that is considered valuable to students). Table 2 presents the number and percentage of officers who reported these alternative disciplinary actions.

Table 2. Alternative methods of discipline

Alternative disciplinary action

Number of officers

Percentage of officers




Legal intervention



Student accountability



Note: Respondents were able to select more than one alternative disciplinary action; therefore, the aggregate percentage exceeds 100%.


The majority of officers (62%) believed counseling was the best alternative strategy of disciplinary intervention to use on students. This approach was focused on developing relationships with students and providing mentorship. In addition, officers explained the importance of talking with students to understand the reason for their behavior and promote more positive encounters with SBLEs. The following statements by SBLEs describe their alternative tactics to handling student discipline:

We like to spend time trying to figure out what is going on at home and outside of school that is causing this behavior.—Officer N

Educating students as to why their behavior is wrong is important.—Officer S

We need to keep a close eye on the at risk students and try to push them in the right direction.—Officer U

It is important to develop relationships with students. If you can create a good environment for students, there will be no need for punishment.—Officer W

We need counseling programs that involve talking with parents, the school, the victim, and the student to see what is best for the student.—Officer Y

Some officers believed that counseling as an intervention is more valuable for handling students and should be the first line of defense before legal intervention:

I don’t always support the criminal charges being pursued because these are kids at the end of the day.—Officer B

Using warnings gives students a chance to correct their own behavior before formal punishment is used.—Officer V

Nearly one-third (31%) of SBLEs reported use of legal interventions as an alternative approach to discipline. However, officers commented that legal interventions are more appropriate for serious offenses, such as criminal behavior. Other types of student offenses (e.g., dress code violations and classroom disruption), officers believed, should fall under the disciplinary purview of administration. The following statements demonstrate some officers’ opinions on the use of legal interventions under certain circumstances:

Rule violations should be handled administratively, and crime should be handled by law enforcement.—Officer K

We like to talk to administrators to see what they can do from their end so that it does not become a legal matter … unless it needs to be.—Officer R

One officer noted that local prosecutors often require evidence that schools have used less serious sanctions before court referral is implemented:

Schools must prove that other discipline steps were taken before they prosecute a student.—Officer U

Student Accountability

When asked about alternative disciplinary actions for students, some SBLEs (27%) proposed actions that involved more student accountability. For some of the officers this was described as punishment that focused on taking away a student’s free time or valued activities.

There need to be programs or punishments in place to take way a student’s free time. For example, community service on the weekends. This hits closer to home for them because you are taking away something they value, which is their free time.—Officer E

We can be more creative. We can take away their athletics, lunch-time with friends … take away things they value.—Officer Q

I say bring students in on Saturdays and have them spend a full day in school working on school assignments … and maybe bring in the parents as well to spend the day there. If they don’t want to spend any more time in school than they have to, then they need to behave right during school hours.—Officer Z

Other officers suggested punishment involving required service either in the community or in their respective school.

There needs to be more responsibility put on students and not the parents. Parents really get punished because they are the ones that have to pay the fines when a student is ticketed. We should implement programs with the support of courts that focus more on making students give back to their community through service of some sort. This turns a negative situation into a positive and hopefully a learning experience for the student by giving back to their community in some way.—Officer F

Especially for less serious offenses, schools need to develop programs for students that involve community service in the schools, like helping clean up trash or helping clean up after lunch periods.—Officer G

If a crime has not been committed, there are always alternatives. One approach is to have a student sit in on an actual  court proceeding and see this process play out to deter them from wanting to going through the same thing. Penalties should also be more about making students do charity work or community service instead of always fining the parents. The goal should be to make the student suffer the punishment or be held accountable for their own actions by doing something meaningful or working it off, not their parents.—Officer H

Relationship between roles and discipline 

In order to analyze the relationship between the roles of SBLEs and the disciplinary actions most commonly used, we used information on SBLE officer roles from the larger data collection effort. Specifically, as identified previously in McKenna et al. (2014), SBLEs were found to have four main existing roles in an educational setting: (a) law enforcer, (b) mentor/role model, (c) educator, and (d) surrogate parent. In this context, the law enforcer role involved enforcement of law violations (i.e., issuing citations and making arrests) on campus property. Mentor/role model involved talking to students on a daily basis and establishing positive relationships. Officers who took on an educator role were more likely to provide edification on juvenile law to staff and students. Finally, officers who defined their role as a surrogate parent in a school setting described instances of providing students with emotional support and items, such as clothing and school supplies.

Although SBLE officers identified each of these roles, the majority (77%) suggested their primary role was a law enforcer. Table 3 (adopted from McKenna et al., 2014) presents the number and percentage of officers who identified each role. These roles are in line with the traditional triad approach to school-based policing, but also suggest this model may be expanding with the additional role of surrogate parent.

Table 3. Roles of SBLE3


Number of officers

Percentage of officers

Law enforcer



Mentor/role model






Surrogate parent



Note: Respondents were able to select more than one role in the school environment; therefore, the aggregate percentage exceeds 100%.

In order to explore a relationship between common themes identified   in this study, a Jaccard’s similarity coefficient was used to analyze the relationship between the roles of and disciplinary actions employed by SBLEs. The value index of a Jaccard’s similarity coefficient is between 0 and 1; a value of 0 suggests a weak similarity among the coded themes, whereas a value of 1 indicates a strong similarity among the coded themes (Bazeley & Jackson, 2013). In this analysis, the cut-off point for the similarity index was a value greater than 0.3. Figure 1 represents the similarity between the coded themes of roles and disciplinary actions. The findings indicate that officers who reported a law enforcement role were more likely to engage in disciplinary actions that resulted in either legal interventions (J=0.5000) or counseling (J=0.5789) (see Figure 1). The role of mentor/role model was most similar to a disciplinary action that resulted in counseling (J=0.4211). Officers who reportedly took on role of an educator where similar in their response to discipline that involved a counseling approach (J=0.4706) and referral to administration (J=0.3077). Finally, the role of surrogate parent was also most similarly related to a disciplinary action of counseling (J=0.3500) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Relationship between roles and discipline actions

Discussion and recommendations

Collectively, these findings provide several important implications in terms of both practice and research. First, counseling, over all other disciplinary actions, was found to be the most commonly used response to student misbehavior. That is, the majority of officers interviewed discussed currently using some form of counseling students in response to misbehavior. This indicates that officers report using less punitive disciplinary actions much more frequently than other more punitive responses. This finding is contrary to much of the prior research, which suggests officers engage in more punitive disciplinary actions (Dohrn, 2002; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Rimer, 2004; Theriot, 2009). Additionally, this finding emphasizes the disconnect that exists between how officers are perceived to respond to student misbehavior (i.e., arrest and ticketing) and the actual interactions they most likely have with students (i.e., counseling). Further, the percentage of officers who indicated the use of counseling (58%) and legal intervention (54%) as current disciplinary actions, as opposed to the percentage of officers who believed that counseling (62%) and legal intervention (31%) should be used as alternative disciplinary actions, shifted quite substantially. The higher percentage of officers who believe that counseling is a more effective and/or a more appropriate alternative to current disciplinary actions indicates that not only are a substantial number of officers currently utilizing some form of counseling in response to student misbehavior, but even officers who are not currently using this disciplinary action believe that counseling is likely more effective and/or appropriate for handling different types of student infractions. This suggests that officers working in the school environment should aim to counsel students regarding their behavior prior to employing other disciplinary responses.

In terms of research, the use and support of counseling by SBLEs as a disciplinary action is particularly noteworthy because it is likely that many of these counseling instances are done informally, without the level of documentation typically associated with a ticket, arrest, or referral to administration. This lack of formal documentation likely results in these counseling responses being absent from secondary discipline data obtained from school districts, state education agencies, and/or police departments (whether associated with the school district or a municipality). Additionally, if counseling responses are not included in quantitative instruments (e.g., surveys or questionnaires) developed by researchers who aim to assess officers’ use of certain disciplinary actions in the school environment, then these more informal responses will also go undetected. Not capturing such information could have major implications for conclusions drawn from research studies. For instance, if these counseling incidents are not captured and included in analysis, it may appear that officers utilize more punitive disciplinary approaches, such as ticketing and arresting, when in reality these responses only occur for serious criminal behavior and/or after many informal counseling attempts. Therefore, it is important for future research to account for all SBLE officer responses to crime and misbehavior in the school environment in order to ensure that accurate conclusions can be drawn.

Despite prior research (Dohrn, 2002; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Rimer, 2004; Theriot, 2009) indicating that officers working in the school environment are overly punitive, the current study found that legal interventions appear to be used only when necessary. For instance, officers described using legal intervention approaches to discipline when a criminal offense was committed and/or  when zero tolerance policies required such  a response. This finding is important to consider in that we must remember that law enforcement officers are trained to provide a law enforcement response when a crime is committed. The SBLEs interviewed described just that. When students commit criminal acts on school property, SBLEs respond as trained, and for more minor incidents of student misbehavior or disruption, they utilize other less punitive responses, such as counseling. This conclusion is contradictory to much of the prior research (Dohrn, 2002; Fowler, 2011; Kupchik, 2010; Meiners, 2011; Price, 2009; Rimer, 2004; Teske, 2011; Theriot, 2009), which collectively suggests that officers respond with legal responses to student behavior even when such behavior is not serious or a criminal offense. Future research should examine which behaviors result in legal interventions, and which behaviors result in less punitive responses.

Finally, many SBLEs believed that beyond counseling and the use of legal interventions in more serious instances, disciplinary actions that focus on student accountability would be more effective and/or appropriate. Many common disciplinary actions used in the school environment do not hold the student accountable, and in some ways create more of a burden on the student’s parents or caregiver. For instance, if a student is arrested or ticketed for some form of misbehavior while at school, one could argue that the parents of that child suffer more than the child does. The financial (i.e., bail, lawyer fees, and court fees) and time burden (i.e., attending court hearings and lost time at work) placed on parents could potentially outweigh the intended punishment of the student. Similarly, even a referral to an administrator, who has a host of options ranging from an informal discussion with the student up to expulsion, could place a substantial burden on the parents of the student. Parents may have to leave work and come to the school and pick up their child, stay home while they are not allowed to attend school, or meet with teachers/administrators to discuss the student’s behavior.

While it is clear that many of the current responses to student misbehavior are at least equally if not more burdensome for parents and/or caregivers than they are for students, officers described what they believe is a more effective and/or appropriate disciplinary action that focuses on student accountability. Rather than punishing the parents, officers believe that it is more effective to target activities that students value and/or require them to give back to the community and/or school in terms of their time. The idea is to utilize punishments that directly impact the student, thus holding them, and not others, accountable for their actions. This type of disciplinary action could create a stronger deterrent effect because students are directly held accountable for their behavior. Schools should consider allowing officers to create such programs that ultimately hold students accountable for their misbehavior.

Roles of SBLE officers and discipline actions

This study also examined how the roles of SBLEs could potentially impact their responses to student misbehavior, and ultimately the school-to-prison pipeline. This was accomplished by assessing the similarity between the code themes for roles (i.e., law enforcement, mentor/role model, educator, and surrogate parent) and disciplinary actions (i.e., counseling, legal intervention, and referral to administration).

This study found that SBLEs who described a law enforcement role in the school environment had a moderate similarity for disciplinary responses that entailed counseling ( J=0.5789) and legal interventions (J=0.5000). Considering what the law enforcement role entails as well as what disciplinary actions of counseling and legal intervention involve, these disciplinary actions have a logical connection to the officer’s role. Law enforcement officers are trained to deescalate situations by talking with people and counseling them on both why their behavior is inappropriate and what the consequences will be if it continues. In many instances, if the behavior continues and/or it reaches the level of a criminal offense in which an arrest or citation is appropriate, the officer will do just that. The results of this study indicate the same is true in the school environment for officers who take on the law enforcement role. This role has the strongest association with the disciplinary action of counseling, indicating that in a majority of situations, counseling is most appropriate; however, when needed and often when a criminal offense occurs, legal interventions are used. These responses should be expected considering that the law enforcement role is focused on the enforcement of law violations.

Those officers who described a role consistent with that of an educator had a moderate association for counseling (J=0.4706) and to a lesser extent referral to administration (J=0.3077) as disciplinary actions. The role of educator is comprised of providing education to students and staff regarding juvenile law and the consequences for violating the law, as well as a number of other topics that are associated with school and student safety (e.g., bullying, drug use, and violence prevention). Just as a traditional educator would, officers describing this as their role counseled students and referred students to administrators. This type of action is indicative of an educator because he or she is tasked with teaching students both academically and socially, and with counseling students on issues they face. When problems become too disruptive, an administrator is typically summoned to provide some type of punishment beyond the teachers’ counseling efforts. To some extent, officers assuming the role of educator appear to mirror the response of a traditional classroom educator.

Further, officers who adopted a mentor/role model role in a school setting had an association with counseling (J=0.4211) as a disciplinary action. The role of mentor/role model involves having daily interactions and talking to students in an effort to build positive relationships. This connection between the role of mentor and the disciplinary action of counseling makes logical sense in that the mentor role involves talking with students, whether it is asking about their day or explaining why their behavior is inappropriate and what may happen if they continue such behavior.

Finally, those officers who described actions that were consistent with that of a surrogate parent role also sometimes accepted the disciplinary action of counseling ( J = 0.3500). The role of surrogate parent entails serving in the capacity of a parental figure toward students. Parents are typically the first people from whom a child learns right from wrong and that poor behavior has consequences, and this is often achieved through counseling. Parents, especially of young children, often spend time talking with their children regarding appropriate behavior. Therefore, it is no surprise that officers taking on this role in the school environment adopt the disciplinary action of counseling.

Ultimately, these findings show that an officer’s role potentially has some impact on the disciplinary actions taken on students and, therefore, has important implications for the school-to-prison pipeline. That is, the mere presence of officers in a school environment may not lead to overly punitive discipline outcomes that result in the removal of children from classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, but rather how officers are used in such an environment is an important consideration. If an officer’s role does impact the type of disciplinary actions used, then collaboration with school administrators regarding these roles and subsequent responses and appropriate training for SBLE officers is vital.

It is important that district and campus administrators work collaboratively with police departments (whether internal or external of the school district) to establish the roles and functions of officers working in the school environment. However, this collaboration is even more central when considering that an officer’s role(s) will impact not only what incidents they respond to, but also how they respond to these incidents in terms of their disciplinary actions, and ultimately the pipeline. For instance, if these parties agree that the officers are to serve a law enforcement function only, it should be understood that officers will respond to incidents where a criminal offense may have occurred or is likely to occur, and they will respond according to what is appropriate under the law. Further, if the parties desire the officers to serve in roles other than that of law enforcement officers (i.e., counselor, educator, or surrogate parent), then additional officer training will likely be required in order for an officer to effectively perform the duties associated with such a role.

This expansion of roles, which many officers reported is already occurring (McKenna et al. 2014), may allow the officers to respond to a more diverse set of incidents within the school environment as well as utilize other disciplinary responses. However, when a criminal offense occurs, officers will likely always respond with some form of legal intervention because, first and foremost, they are law enforcement officers. Ultimately, this initial and continued collaboration between educational administrators and the officers is fundamental to ensuring that officer roles and likely responses to certain incidents are understood and expected by all. Thus more research is needed in the area of roles that examines how different actors in the school environment may have different expectations of SBLEs, and how this can  lead to discipline responses that have the likelihood, either positively or negatively, to impact the pipeline.

In addition to collaboration between educational administrators and police departments, the level and type of training officers receive is critical. Specifically, if the findings in this study are replicated, then one would expect different disciplinary actions when officers take on roles other than that of a law enforcement officer. McKenna and Pollock (2014) suggested that role conflicts emerge when the law enforcement subculture (crime fighter or law enforcer) overlaps with the dynamics of a school setting. Thus, it is necessary to provide specialized training to SBLEs whose environment requires certain roles and expectations for dealing with students. Whereas punitive approaches are more conducive to street policing, other approaches, such as education and counseling, may be more appropriate for addressing school discipline.

Therefore, if we want to reduce the number of students arrested and/ror ticketed for more minor offenses, and ultimately lessen the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline, then we must train officers to take on roles other than that of a law enforcement officer (for which formal training is received in a police academy at minimum). Officers should not simply be given these roles without receiving appropriate training (such as some form of counseling or educator training) that supports the corresponding role. Additional and targeted training would allow officers to effectively take on other roles in the school environment, and thus potentially produce different disciplinary responses in instances where it is appropriate. Future research should examine what types of training SBLE officers currently receive as well as what type of trainings might be beneficial, beyond a traditional police academy, for officers working in the school environment. This is particularly important given the frequent engagement in counseling activities that officers have and their lack of training in working with students with mental health issues, who often require expert intervention from social workers or school psychologists. Further, officers that engage in activities (e.g., counseling or mentoring) that deviate from a law enforcement role have the potential to foster inappropriate relationships with students (Kupchik & Bracy, 2010; Stinson & Watkins, 2014). Therefore, it is necessary that officers who take on these additional roles are properly trained to implement them. Collectively, collaboration with school administrators and appropriate training for SBLE officers has the potential to lessen the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline by creating a better understanding of how officers will be used in a specific school environment as well as by better preparing officers for the type of work they will be doing.


The results and conclusions of this study are not without limitations. It is recognized that this study suffers from low external validity, which is often inherent to qualitative research. As this study collected interview data from 26 participants representing only 11 school districts in Texas, the findings many not be generalizable to other school environments, school districts, or states. Additionally, in this study only SBLE officers were interviewed and no other type of law enforcement officer working in the school environment (e.g., SROs) was considered. It is possible that other types of officers working in the school environment have different roles and/or discipline practices, and, therefore, these findings and conclusions may not be applicable.

Despite these limitations, we believe that the use of a qualitative methodology was most appropriate given the lack of prior research and the need for an in-depth understanding of how roles assigned to SBLE officers impact the school-to-prison pipeline. The use of a qualitative methodology allowed for the discovery of information that may not have been captured if quantitative measures were used. For instance, as noted, it is likely that counseling responses to misbehavior would have gone undetected if secondary discipline data or a quantitative instrument were used. Ultimately, the use of a qualitative methodology allowed for a more comprehensive and in-depth examination of the connection between officer roles and specific disciplinary outcomes, which is likely to inform future quantitative studies that are more generalizable.

Although the use of law enforcement officers in the school environment has been negatively linked to the school-to-prison pipeline, this study suggests that the connection may not be as direct as prior research has implied. Specifically, the findings of the current study suggest that an officer’s  role in the school environment may impact that officer’s disciplinary actions, which in past research have been used to quantify SBLEs negative impact on the pipeline (i.e., increasing arrests and ticketing). Therefore, we suggest that more attention be focused on how officers are being used in the school environment rather than their mere presence in this environment.

Considering the growth of law enforcement in schools over the past decade, we need to empirically identify how these officers can be used in a way that supports school safety and security, but at the same time does not negatively impact students. Future research should focus on assessing the relationship between the types of training officers receive and the roles in which they are tasked.


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Kathy Martinez-Prather is the Director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. Her research interests include exclusionary discipline practices in schools, school-based policing, juvenile justice, and school safety public policy. She has published research in the International Journal of Cyber Criminology, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice & Criminology, as well as Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management.

Joseph M. McKenna is the Associate Director of Research and Evaluation at the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. He conducts research in the areas of violence, school safety and emergency management, school crime/disorder, school climate, policing, and public policy. His research has been published in Criminal Justice Policy Review, Criminal Justice Ethics, the International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, and the Security Journal, among other practitioner and academic outlets.

Scott W. Bowman, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State University. Dr. Bowman earned his Ph.D. in Justice Studies from Arizona State University with an emphasis on racial and socioeconomic inequalities. His current teaching and research interests include race/socioeconomic status and crime, hip-hop and positive youth development, and juvenile justice. His recent research appears as various academic journals and books on a variety of criminological and sociological topics, including a two volume, edited book on race and prisons entitled “Color Behind Bars: Racism in the U.S. Prison System.”

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