In contrast to courts and detention facilities, which respond to juveniles separately from adults, most law enforcement officers respond to situations involving juveniles and adults. However, officers use much more discretion in policing juveniles, as they are typically engaged in nonserious offenses. Depending upon the seriousness of the offense, officers have a wide range of options in responding to juveniles, including informal counseling, release to parents, and arrest. In recent years, several changes in the juvenile justice system have changed the role of law enforcement officers, resulting in officers responding to very young juveniles for relatively minor offenses, including the policing of juveniles in schools and zero- tolerance policies.

Following the rise in juvenile crime in the 1980s, many schools began partnerships with local law enforcement where officers were embedded within schools (Trump 1998). Schools were previously reliant upon teachers and administrators to provide a security function and respond to disruptive students, but “their presence pose[d] little threat to the more disruptive offenders” (p. 31), thereby necessitating a more authoritative presence. Various models of school policing exist across the country, including school security departments, school police departments, and school resource officers (SRO). School security departments are designed to provide a security function in schools. While staff typically have less training and authority when compared with other models, in some cases they may carry weapons or make arrests. This practice recently came under fire in Florida, as security officers employed at Hillsborough County elementary schools were unsworn officers, yet could carry firearms and engage in defensive tactics (Kourkounis 2014). Other districts retain school police departments where sworn officers are paid by the district to provide services. Finally, the SRO model has gained popularity in recent years, where local law enforcement agencies assign officers to schools. Officers embedded within schools provide a varying array of services, including deterrence, security, program implementation, mentoring, and delinquency prevention. In many schools, officers implement the G.R.E.A.T. program, a program designed to provide younger juveniles with the skills and information to assist them in avoiding gang membership.

Despite their increasing popularity, school officer programs face several challenges and criticisms. One major challenge in implementing SRO programs is that the initial funding tends to be based upon temporary federal grants of 3 years (Weiler & Cray 2011). After this, departments or schools are expected to locate alternate funding sources. This has led some to criticize the sustainability of these programs, as they are likely to draw uncommitted officers who question the longevity of their positions. Officers also frequently regard a school officer assignment as “babysitting” and undesirable, potentially resulting in apathetic officers being placed in these positions. Additionally, many programs fail to effectively train SROs, instead relying upon on the job training while shadowing another SRO (Finn & McDevitt 2005). The training and effectiveness of SROs have come under recent scrutiny, as several cases of punitive treatment of juveniles have been made public. For example, one sheriff’s department was sued following the handcuffing of two children under the age of 10, while another was criticized for handcuffing and arresting a 5-year-old (Zalatoris 2015).

A related issue that shapes law enforcement responses to juveniles in schools is the adoption of zero-tolerance policies across the United States. In the 1990s, schools introduced policies of automatic suspension or expulsion and arrest for bringing weapons of any type into schools (Curtis 2014). Implemented in response to public concerns of juveniles engaging in gang activities and abusing drugs, these policies have expanded to include formal punishments for less serious offenses (e.g., cigarettes, fighting) and minimal violations (e.g., swearing, carrying a butter knife for lunch). Because zero-tolerance policies have been implemented disproportionately in inner city schools, they have also had a harsh impact on impoverished minority youths. Recently termed “the school to prison pipeline,” juveniles are now receiving formal punishments in the criminal justice system that will impact them in the long term for behaviors that would have previously been responded to informally by school administrators. The increased presence of officers in schools and punishment of juveniles for seemingly minor offenses means that a growing number of juveniles are removed from schools, which coupled with limited resources and opportunities, results in greater criminal justice system involvement well after adolescence (Heitzeg 2009; Price 2009).

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