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Edge: Understanding trauma

Student seeks better training for school security personnel
Dorothy Espelage cover image

The following article is from the Fall 2020 issue of Edge: Carolina Education Review.

Researcher: Dorothy Espelage

Americans are regularly traumatized by school shooting massacres, a phenomenon that has pushed those who run schools to hire security personnel to protect students, teachers, and other staff.
But how do we bring police and security personnel into schools without introducing new traumas? How do security measures take into account that many students come to school scarred by histories of aggressive policing?

The Edge
In response to a wave of deadly school shootings in recent years, schools across the U.S. have added school resource officers and other security personnel with the intent of improving safety. With the addition of police and other security personnel come concerns over how the presence of police affects students and school staff. Dorothy Espelage, a leading researcher on school safety issues, has led research evaluating the impact of the presence of police and security officers. Espelage has led a pilot study to develop and evaluate an online training program to instruct school security personnel to avoid adding to students’ trauma.

Dorothy Espelage, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at the UNC School of Education, has led examinations of the effectiveness of school security personnel. She also has worked to develop training programs that help security personnel better understand the traumas many students bring to school, with the objective of creating environments that are better equipped to promote safety and a sense of well-being for all students.


Between 14,000 and 20,000 school resource officers are in service nationwide, according to an estimate by the National Association of School Resource Officers based on U.S. Department of Justice data.

But there’s been little study regarding how police and other security personnel who work in schools are trained, nor evaluation of training programs that can help security personnel be effective in promoting the safety and well-being of students.

Schools largely have adopted “law and order” approaches such as increased surveillance, referrals to law enforcement and other “hardening” of schools rather than adopting what researchers have determined to be proven violence-prevention strategies and public health approaches that seek to address root causes of violence (Nance, 2016).

Studies that have sought to evaluate the effectiveness of police officers who work as school resource officers (SROs) are mixed. One analysis using data from the 2010 School Survey on Crime and Safety found that having an SRO on campus is associated with higher rates of reported violence at schools (Swartz, et al., 2016).

Researchers have documented that harsher school discipline policies and police presence in schools do not make all students feel safer and can be doing some of them harm. Police presence and harsher discipline has contributed disproportionately to exclusionary discipline practices — in-school or out-of-school suspensions — and criminalization for students of color and for students with disabilities (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015; Curran, 2016; DeLaRue & Forber-Platt, 2018; Merkwae, 2015).

Additionally, because communities of color have long been victims of police brutality and other forms of aggressive policing, police presence in schools may be perceived as threatening the psychological and physical safety of students who come from those communities.

Could SROs and other school safety personnel be trained to be better aware of students’ traumas and to better serve all students?


A review of SRO programs found that few of the programs trained SROs before they started their jobs (Finn & McDevitt, 2005). Another review found that 31 states do not require youth- or school-related training for SROs (Morris, Epstein, & Yusuf, 2017). Even less is known about training of non-police school security personnel.

And yet, SROs and other school security personnel are called on to respond to situations involving children and youth, some of them who carry histories of traumatic experiences. To better fulfill their duties, school security personnel need training on child development, trauma-informed care, restorative practices, and other topics that can help them support safe and caring environments.

Espelage recently led a project funded by the National Institute of Justice to create and evaluate a training program for SROs and other school security personnel aimed at helping them become more aware of and sensitive to the traumas many students bring to school.

Trauma is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as being the result of “an event, or series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Researchers refer to trauma in children as “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. ACEs may take many forms, including neglect, forms of abuse, witnessing violence, death of a loved one, having an incarcerated parent, or having a parent or caregiver with mental illness or substance abuse issues.

The 2011-2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that 61% of participants from 23 states reported having one or more adverse childhood experience (Merrick, Ford, Ports, & Guinn, 2018).

SAMHSA has developed a concept of “trauma-informed care” (TIC) that includes four assumptions that have become known in the field as the “Four Rs”:
• Realize
• Recognize
• Respond
• Resist re-traumatization

For SROs, applying the “Four Rs” means they must 1) realize how trauma affects individuals, families, and communities; 2) recognize the signs of trauma; 3) respond by using a comprehensive trauma-informed approach; and 4) resist re-traumatization by mindfully avoiding potential triggers of past traumas (Espelage, et al., 2020).


Students who have been traumatized in the past may be re-traumatized by punitive consequences commonly used in U.S. schools.

Even the mere presence of SROs can be traumatizing for people of color who have had negative interactions with police. People who report more contact with police report more trauma and anxiety symptoms (Geller, Fagan, Tyler, & Link, 2014).

As part of the National Institute of Justice-funded project, Espelage and her team developed and evaluated a pilot computer-based training program aimed at helping security personnel better understand trauma-informed care, along with modules that covered social emotional learning, restorative problem-solving, and cultural competencies.

School security personnel using the modules had significantly higher scores in an assessment of trauma-informed knowledge and competencies compared to participants in a control group (Espelage, et al., 2020).

One participant wrote: “OMG. This information makes me feel guilty about the way I deal with students. I had no idea about some of the trauma. This [training] will help me in the performance of my duties.”

Another said: “The role of an SRO has nothing to do with being soft. Neglecting to meet that child’s needs to address his trauma can jeopardize the safety of the child as well as everyone in the school. An SRO wears various hats during our daily functions in the school, and we must be caring, patient, involved, work to build relationships with students based on trust, listen to them, try to work with them to get to the root of their feelings/problem or get them the professional help they may need (even when the outcome may not be favorable to them but we must try.)”


Espelage and her team said further research is needed to replicate their findings with larger populations. But, they said, the study indicates that school security personnel are amenable to computer-assisted professional development experiences, and that they demonstrated greater knowledge and competencies regarding trauma-informed care after completing the modules.

Additional work is needed to develop deeper understandings of the experiences, needs, and skills of people who are hired to serve as SROs or school security personnel. Espelage and her team found a dearth of information on the types of training available for SROs and school security personnel, implying a lack of structure around the supports available to them.

Future reforms may soften some of the hardening of schools and provide more resources for already proven strategies to assist students, especially those from minority and other under-served populations. But the study found that SROs and other security personnel benefited greatly from learning about trauma-informed care, expressing new strategies they intended to use in schools and feeling better equipped to support students with histories of adverse childhood experiences and other traumas.

Funding Source: This work was funded with a grant from National Institute of Justice (2017-CK-BX-0019) to Dorothy Espelage (PI). The findings and conclusions in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Institute of Justice.


Crenshaw, K., Ocen, P., & Nanda, J. (2015). Black girls matter: Pushed out, overpoliced, and underprotected. New York, NY: African American Policy Forum. Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. Retrieved from

Curran, F. C. (2016). Estimating the effect of state zero tolerance laws on exclusionary discipline, raclal discipline gaps, and student behavior. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(4), 647-668.

DeLaRue, L., & Forber-Platt, A. J. (2018). When gangs are in schools: Challenges for youth and expectations for administration. In H. Shapiro (Ed.), The Handbook of Violence in Education: Forms, Factors, and Preventions (pp. 287-302). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell Publishers.

Espelage, D. L., El Sheikh, A., Robinson, L. E., Valido, A., Ingram, K. M., Aksoy, C. T., Atria, C. G., Salama, C. D., Chalfant, P. K., Poekert, P. E., Nicholson, A. M. (under review). Development of online professional development for school resource officers: Understanding trauma, social-emotional learning, restorative discipline, and cultural diversity.

Finn, P., & McDevitt, J. (2005). National Assessment of School Resource Officer Programs. Final Project Report. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from

Geller, A., Fagan, J., Tyler, T., & Link, B. G. (2014). Aggressive policing and the mental health of young urban men. American Journal of Public Health, 104(12), 2321-2327. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302046

Merkwae, A. (2015). Schooling the police: Race, disability, and the conduct of school resource officers. Michigan Journal of Race & Law, 21, 147-181.

Merrick, M. T., Ford, D. C., Ports, K. A., & Guinn, A. S. (2018). Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences from the 2011-2014 behavioral risk factor surveillance system in 23 states. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(11), 1038-1044. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.2537

Morris, M., Epstein, R, & Yusuf, A. (2017). Be her resource: A toolkit about school resource officers and girls of color. The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Retrieved from

Nance, J. P. (2016). Rethinking law enforcement officers in schools. George Washington Law Review Arguendo, 84, 151-159.

Swartz, K., Osborne, D. L., Dawson-Edwards, C., & Higgins, G. E. (2016). Policing schools: Examining the impact of place management activities on school violence. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 41(3), 465-483.