The days of children flocking to see Officer Friendly have given way to a more ominous and perhaps negative relationship and connotation to the presence of law enforcement in schools. Some activists would argue that this ominous and contentious relationship between SROs and the students that they are hired to protect is evidence of the “writing on the wall” from the early adoption of programs that have placed armed law enforcement officers in public schools since the late 1950s.
Since the Columbine school shooting and others like Sandy Hook and the Parkland school shootings, the automatic outcry and go-to (almost knee-jerk) response has been to increase armed law enforcement presence in public schools to ensure the safety of K–12 students across the nation.
It can hardly be argued that the general public does not want safe schools. No one wants to send their children to school to be subjected to violence at any time, let alone when they should be focused on learning. What can and has been argued is how to ensure that students across the United States are educated in safe environments.
Should the perception of safety come at the expense of increased racial profiling and the disproportionate influx of Black and brown students into the school to prison pipeline? Should school districts use their currently stretched budgets to fund what appears to be a substantially ineffective school policing model that results in further widening the achievement gap?
There are records of school shootings that date back to 1840. There have been multiple school shootings every year since 1966, and it seems as though the only thing that halted school shooting statistics from rising further in 2020 was the shutdown of the brick-and-mortar education model in the wake of COVID-19. This article does not aim to suggest that the mere presence of SROs results in school shootings. This article does suggest that after over half a century, the knee-jerk response to increase armed law enforcement presence in schools is not making schools safer.
There has long been a push, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, to increase police presence in K–12 schools through its Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS). COPS funding has provided more than $750 million for the placement of more than 6,500 SROs to more than 3,000 grantees.
In the wake of protests of police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black Americans Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, and tragically too many others to count, there has been public outcry to defund the police, and many question the necessity of police presence in schools as this debate has become a forefront discussion.
In June 2020, the Minneapolis School Board ended its security contract with the Minneapolis police department after a white police officer of the force held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. In Rochester, New York, the city council cut the police department budget by $3 million, and the entire SRO staff was laid off in response to rallying cries for safer schools.
“Defunding the police” is the umbrella term for broad sweeping police reform across the nation. Defunding the police is not the same as abolishing law enforcement. Defunding the police would work in a vein similar to the sweeping movement that has and continues to defund education across the United States. Funds would instead be diverted from law enforcement responses to issues that are better handled by trained mental and behavioral specialists, social workers, and counselors in community-based solutions that would leave law enforcement officers to handle the enforcement of criminal laws.
Both the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school boards in California decided to cancel district contracts with local police departments. The shift in funding has been earmarked for restorative justice, alternative conflict resolution programs, and student achievement programs for students.
The call to defund the police bears striking resemblance to the call to end school district contracts with local law enforcement. School boards in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Edmonds, Washington, have all decided to cancel or suspend their contracts with local police departments that serve as SROs. Petitions by parents, students, teachers’ unions, activists, and school board members from across the nation are gaining traction and attention calling for their school districts to consider the same move.
Since 1958, there have been concerted efforts to engage law enforcement in K–12 public schools. Originally, the initiative was premised on the need to build rapport and trust between youth and law enforcement; however, it has morphed into a police presence in schools that has had a detrimental impact on Black youths introduced into the criminal justice system for infractions that would amount to classroom management violations handled by schools.
The pressure on school districts to cancel or not renew contracts with local police departments stems from issues with funding beyond the already strained school budgets, lack of proven effectiveness, and increases in police brutality and violence in public schools.
Issues with SROs
Across the United States, policing and defense budgets are consistently funded, and, without much fuss, granted funding increases while public school districts are notoriously underfunded and met with calls for district and teacher accountability for student learning. While school funding from federal, state, and local governments has doubled since the 1970s, schools spend large portions of their budgets for SRO salaries, which could presumably be spent on initiatives that specifically address mental health, positive behavior intervention strategies (PBIS), medical, and psychological services.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 1.7 million students go to schools that have SROs but lack guidance counselors. Three million students attend schools with SROs but no school nurse. Six million students attend schools that have SROs but no school psychologist. Ten million students attend schools with law enforcement present but no social worker. Fourteen million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.
With funds being recouped from the canceled contracts, reallocation of funds will make way to reframe how justice takes form in the lives of minority students in our nation’s schools.
Lack of Proven Effectiveness
The central issue with the SRO program is there is very little evidence that the program is effective in decreasing violence in schools.
Law enforcement officers who are placed in schools are trained in law enforcement tactics. Law enforcement tactics are not the same as the PBIS strategies employed by school officials, guidance counselors, and teachers that increase positive interactions and are less likely to lead to criminal records or law enforcement response to temper tantrums of elementary students and classroom management issues.
SROs are not a substitute for strong classroom management by teachers with appropriate administrative support systems. While the National Association of School Resource Officers offers training courses on adolescent mental health, crime prevention, and basic SRO strategies, there is no requirement for SROs to join or participate in the association or the training offered. There are no standardized SRO operating procedures or accountability systems to ensure that SROs are trained and implement strategies that address responses to behaviors in schools that differ from the law enforcement responses to criminal behaviors outside of schools.
Criminalizing Nonviolent Adolescent Behavior
Schools conduct lockouts and hall sweeps to collect students who are tardy for class, which may result in a referral for students to have out-of-school suspension and increase their time out of school.
In Denver, Colorado, a study shows that despite being 13 percent of the total student population, Black students received 29 percent of the student referrals. The upward trend of suspensions and criminalization of students in Denver has not been attributed to an upward trend in criminal behavior in schools. The behaviors that have commonly been criminalized are behaviors that would amount to school code-of-conduct violations. Many of the behaviors that result in referrals in school districts are subjectively assessed. Behaviors that qualify as “disorderly conduct” can range from cursing in class to kicking a trash can or refusing to leave the lunchroom. The involvement between the Denver Police Department and its public school district even goes beyond the contractual obligations to only intervene in conduct issues that are considered criminal and not conduct issues that amount to simple violation of school policies or rules.
In South Carolina, “disturbing schools” was a misdemeanor crime where students could be (and were) thrust into the juvenile justice system for what a teacher or administrator deemed “obnoxious” behavior. While the law was amended after the Niya Kenny case, where a 16-year-old student was forcefully removed and dragged from her desk by the school SRO for defying requests after being asked to put her cell phone away (Kenny recorded the incident and was arrested for disturbing school), several other states, including Kentucky, continue to enforce statutes that are overly broad and that criminally punish minor acts of disruption.
School Safety, Zero Tolerance in Schools, and SROs
Schools are safer when the students’ sense of community and humanity is prioritized. “School connectedness,” a term coined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health, explains the feeling and belief that the adults within the school environment care about students’ learning as well as their physical, social, and emotional safety. In schools that employ harsh and punitive disciplinary measures, school connectedness is lower. In schools where students are aware of police presence and know that law enforcement could likely be called as the result of a school conduct violation, and the consequences may stem from contact with law enforcement (SROs), a fear and feelings of being unsafe are more prevalent, especially among Black students and other students of color.
While there is a necessary balancing test and application of policies and guidelines that will keep students safe in schools, many argue that the presence and use of law enforcement in schools are not only ineffective in making schools safe but also contribute to increased violence in schools. There has been a pendulum swing from total chaos in schools that resembles the opening scenes from the film Lean on Me to the implementation of zero-tolerance policies that exacts a punishment for rule breaking and contributes to the mass incarceration epidemic of minority youth in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Schools that employ a police first and zero-tolerance policy can justify a police response to many behaviors which are school policy/conduct violations that would then result in arrests in the name of “school safety.” For example, in Arlington, Texas, school officers pinned a student’s face to the floor while implementing a takedown technique because the student was using a cell phone in class and refused to relinquish it. In Philadelphia, an asthmatic 11th-grade student was placed in a chokehold after an argument with an SRO because the student was using the restroom without a hall pass. In another instance, 10 students ages 6 to 11 were handcuffed, arrested, and charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” because they failed to make a reasonable effort to prevent a fight.
Schools are less safe when students feel unsafe. The presence of police in schools has not resulted in fewer instances of violence. If school districts are paying for SRO salaries from public taxes, and these taxes also support the juvenile justice system and system of mass incarceration, it is prudent and justified for school districts to cut ties with local and school district police departments. This movement to disband, defund, and disconnect from law enforcement in schools leaves cause for concern from those who feel that schools are safer. However, with evidence and statistics that point to the ineffectiveness and harm linked to law enforcement presence in schools, those who have concerns for safety can find comfort in the alternative solutions that school districts and de-policing advocates are endorsing.
PBIS and restorative solutions programming will allow teachers go back to handling classroom management with administrative structures that support every student.
Restorative solutions seek to repair past harms and prevent future harms by changing the source behaviors that lead to referrals, suspension, and law enforcement involvement for nonviolent, social, psychological, and emotional issues. Staff with elevated behavioral and disciplinary dean status, mental health counselors, school psychiatrists, and other qualified and highly trained staff are equipped with the tools to de-escalate situations rooted in social, emotional, and psychological foundations.
School security measures that increase police presence have yet to be proven effective. Stricter security measures in schools that serve communities and students of color are more likely to resemble prisons than educational institutions. Measures that include metal detectors, body scans, and placing personal belongings on a conveyor belt for searching have not been proven to prevent the increase in school shootings and could arguably increase instances of school violence.
Running schools like prisons negatively impacts learning outcomes of minority students and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. SROs carry and use tasers and employ detaining techniques like chokeholds and takedowns. Instead of making students feel safer in their schools, these tactics leave many students fearful and anxious when they should be in environments that foster learning and communication and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Basic human rights have been increasingly used to politicize and polarize people for generations. The sheer recognition of the “mattering” of Black lives and the visceral response some have to the statement that “Black Lives Matter” are evidence that a statement can speak so loudly that it drowns out the idea that the heart of the matter is that we all deserve compassion, equality, and more than just lip service to truly dismantle a system of murder and oppression which has been alive and thriving for centuries.
The adversarial criminal policing system has been around since the 1700s. What began as a blatant effort to recapture enslaved Africans to return them to their masters has evolved into consistent harm to the Black community in the United States over 300 years later. The public outcry that has called for a movement toward abolition of the police state is quite nuanced and layered. There was and still remains confusion surrounding the movement to abolish and defund the police.
What is dangerous about the conversation to move to abolish the police is to equate the abolition with inevitable lawlessness as the result. The argument that dismantling the police would result in a lack of laws and a rise in criminal behavior is shallow at best and steeped in dangerous, coded, fear-based, dog-whistle politics at worst.