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What the Research Says: School Cops & School Criminalization

A Q&A with University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Ben Fisher

School criminalization expert Ben Fisher came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison this fall (2022) to serve as an associate professor of Civil Society & Community Studies in the School of Human Ecology.

When we learned that Fisher’s research is focused on how aspects of the criminal legal system have been incorporated into schooling, as well as on addressing racial equity in schools, we were excited to discuss his work and welcome him to Madison.

This interview had been edited for clarity and concision.

FFJ: Often when we talk about school criminalization, we’re talking about the issue of whether or not there should be cops in schools. But the issue of carceral practices in schools is bigger than that, correct? What are the different ways school criminalization shows up?

BF: I’ll start by saying that different folks think about this a little bit differently but some of the things that I think about are how elements of the criminal justice system broadly are showing up in schools. You mentioned police in schools and I think that's a very literal instantiation, a literal agent of the criminal justice system in schools, but also the logic that we use in the criminal justice system has also seeped its way into schools. In the 1990s, under Clinton, when the three-strikes-you’re-out policies became a popular approach for addressing crime in communities, a zero tolerance logic in schools followed quickly thereafter. There was this increase in swift and certain punishment for offenses that could be pretty minor.

The way that we respond to student behaviors is another way that school criminalization can appear, this focus on punishment and often for the sake of punishment. Some of my work also is on surveillance and security and the way that we lock down buildings and surveil students in their behaviors. That’s another thing that is very reminiscent of the criminal justice system and espouses this carceral logic in a similar way.

The way that teachers and adults and administrators interact with students can reflect those same logics. You can have variability within schools, where some of the teachers and staff are more punitive and focus on retribution and others are more restorative. So it is a complicated landscape. But to your point, if we want to decriminalize schools, just taking out police is not the full answer. There are embedded ways of doing things that also need to be addressed.

FFJ: Can you talk about the effects the movement toward carceral practices and exclusionary discipline has on marginalized students?

BF: We see parallels with the disparities embedded in the criminal justice system. We know nationwide that the students who are being disproportionately punished are those who hold marginalized identities, students of color, Black students, Indigenous students. We know that LGBTQ students are excluded from school at disproportionate rates and students with disabilities, and you can imagine all the different ways those identities intersect and how that can amplify punishment. So when we incorporate these carceral logics into schools and criminalize schools in a variety of ways we see time after time that it’s having a disproportionately negative effect on marginalized students.

We hear people use the phrase the “school to prison pipeline,” which most researchers I talk to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a catchy metaphor, but maybe doesn’t exactly capture the phenomenon we’re talking about,’ but the idea is that marginalized students are scooped up in this carceral system within school environments and funneled into the carceral system outside of school environments. When we talk about these issues, it’s not something that affects everyone equally, it is most heavily borne by marginalized students.

FFJ: Your recent study even shows that SROs (school resource officers) embedded in majority white schools versus those embedded in districts with a large proportion of Black students conceive of their roles differently. Can you talk about that work?

BF: I interviewed essentially all of the school resource officers in two different school districts, and one school district was majority white and a quite wealthy school district that is mostly suburban. And in that school district following the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012, essentially over the weekend they mobilized resources to get SROs in all of their elementary schools, which hadn’t had them up to that point. By contrast, the other county had a larger school district in a very urban environment where the majority of the students in the schools were not white, there’s a lot of poverty, it’s a city in the U.S. so it was quite segregated and neighborhoods had varying levels of wealth and poverty but as a district, folks understood it as largely poor.

The thing we were really curious about was, in these two different settings, how do officers conceptualize threats, or what is a threat to you. We actually found very similar categories of threats across the two districts but how they were emphasized was quite different. The categories were intruder-based threats, student-based threats, and environmental threats. The intruder-based threats could range from someone with a gun doing mass damage and incurring loss of life, anything from that to a stranger wandering through the parking lot. Student-based threats were often focused on student misbehavior in school, whether that was something relatively mild like bringing drugs to school or fighting in the hallways to something much more serious, again they would imply loss of life. Environmental threats were tornadoes or what if the train on the nearby tracks falls off, more so one-off, bizarre things that might happen.

So the officers in the two districts talked about those same categories of threats but they talked about them in very different ways. In the whiter and wealthier school district, their biggest concern was the intruders and they were particularly concerned about threats of mass gun violence in schools. Part of this might have been motivated by all of those officers being hired right after Sandy Hook so the idea that they were there to prevent the next Sandy Hook might have been at the forefront of their minds, but they had this laser sharp focus on that and we heard at least one, maybe two people say “it’s not if, it’s when.” There was an inevitability to this and demographically they looked a lot like a Sandy Hook or Columbine, these wealthy suburban areas. They were very concerned with protecting their students from outside threats.

By contrast, in the more diverse urban school district, the officers really understood the students themselves as the threats they needed to protect the school from. So they would say, “Yeah, school shootings are a possibility but that’s pretty unlikely, what we really need to deal with here is the behavior of our students.” And when they described what they considered problematic students, they also linked it to ideas of coming from “broken” homes or chaotic communities, these racialized tropes that we’ve heard for decades if not centuries about how white people view Black communities. We saw differences across the two districts in the way that officers talked about students and we’re suggesting that a lot of those different views were based in their understanding of race and racialization.

I think the way that the officers understand threats does have implications for how they behave and interact with students. One of the interesting things was, across both districts, the officers described pretty similar student behaviors that were problematic: bringing in and selling drugs in school was a big one, fighting was a big one. But in the whiter and wealthier district, that behavior was often described as “they’re going through a phase” or “maybe there are mental health issues behind this.” And in the diverse urban district, it was very much, “this is chaos, we need to get a handle on this, it starts at home and if we can’t fix their families and their communities, how are we ever going to be able to educate them.”

FFJ: Why do you think people resist research that calls into question the role of SROs? Why, for example, do so many conversations around SROs, ignore the research done in this area?

BF: I think about two things. I think there is, in the history of this country, there has emerged this idea that the police are the answer to social problems. All these social problems that could be solved by a variety of things can, in our imagination, be addressed by police. It seems like there is this culturally embedded notion that, if we have a social problem, the police will fix it, even with evidence that these problems continue to persist with increased policing. I think there’s a cultural element here in what we imagine that police do.

Since the 2016 election, I think two things have happened: 1) the research has gotten a lot stronger on what happens when you have police in school and it’s fairly consistently negative, but 2) at the same time there’s also this increasing polarization of people politically in our country. So I think there is this sense that if you’re on the team you’ve got to adhere to all the values of that team, and both major parties over the past couple decades have been supportive of police in schools. We’ve seen Obama, Trump, and Biden all invest in police in schools, so to the extent that folks are politically trying to stay aligned with their leaders at the national level, there isn’t a major option, an abolitionist who has been in charge of the country, or maybe someone who is not an abolitionist but just looks at the evidence and says “this is not a good investment.”

I also wonder if the public at large is skeptical of social science research. I taught some undergrads research methods a couple of years ago and I asked them on the first day, “What do you think of when you think of research methods?” Their answers were “untrustworthy” and “fudging the numbers” and “stats can say anything” and so I am wondering if there’s a broader skepticism that research and academia is full of liberals who are trying to ruin our country.

FFJ: We can’t conclude an interview with you without broaching the issue of whether SROs can prevent school shootings. What does the data show on SROs and mass shootings?

BF: Until the last year or two, there hadn’t been any systematic research on that, but there’s been a couple of studies published that take on that issue head-on. The first one, it examines all of the school shootings in some range of time, and they compare schools with police versus schools that didn’t have police, the death total, how many people lost their lives. And they found in the schools with the police, there was a significantly, both statistically and meaningfully, higher, maybe an extra two or three people died in events where there were police there.

I don’t think the conclusion from that is that police in schools make school shootings more deadly, but the conclusion is they’re probably not making them more safe. This idea that if someone with a gun comes into a school, the SROs take them out, it disabuses us of that notion. It actually reminds me of students I talked to in focus groups who just had simplest critiques of why their SRO might not be a superhero in the way that adults think they should be. They said, “yeah maybe they keep us safer, but what if someone comes in and starts shooting on this side of the building but the SRO is on the other end of the building?” Well, yeah, it will take them a long time to get there. And these fourth and fifth graders also talked about, “What if they try to shoot the bad guy but have bad aim and maybe hit other students?” and they talked about, “well, I don’t know if my SRO is in the best shape so I don’t know if he could run very fast and chase the bad guy,” just these very basic level critiques that adults don’t think about, for whatever reason. Those things were interesting to hear from young people.

The other study did a sort of national-level investigation of homicides at schools, so it was not all mass shootings. They essentially found that having police in schools had no discernible effect on reducing that outcome. So the couple of studies that we have are not showing any evidence that police are preventing gun violence. Of course, we hear anecdotes here and there where something happened and an officer learned about a weapon and confiscated it, and I think we can be glad that violence was averted if that was the case. But if we review the evidence in its totality, in a more systematic way than those isolated anecdotes, we don’t see any consistent effect.

Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.

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