The End of Police in Schools
September 17, 2020
As demonstrations over the death of George Floyd spread across the country, school districts are reevaluating the use of resource officers.
Two days later, Portland Public Schools followed suit, with Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero announcing that the district will discontinue the regular presence of police in its schools and increase spending on school counselors and social workers.
Now, a week later, school districts across the country are considering eliminating contracts with local police departments and ending the use of school resource officers – moves that signal mounting agreement among school officials that the unequal treatment of black people by police officers is mirrored at the K-12 level, where black children are disciplined more often and more severely than white children, and that staffing schools with police officers exacerbates the trend of children being pushed out of schools and into the juvenile or criminal justice system.
“Research and the experiences of young people of color have taught us that police in schools create a toxic school climate and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project. “Police-free schools are essential to the well-being of our black and brown youth. This move by Minneapolis Public Schools is bold, big and gets us one step closer to reimagining justice for our young people of color.”
School resource officers are law enforcement officers employed by a police department and assigned to work in schools. They are not security guards. They are usually armed, with the exception of a handful of school districts that prohibit them from carrying firearms on school property.
As it stands, as many as 20,000 school resource officers are in schools today, according to the National School Resource Officers Association, though the exact number is unclear since they are not required to register with any national database and police departments aren’t required to report how many of their officers serve in that capacity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 42% of public schools reported employing at least one school resource officer during the 2015-16 school year.
Civil rights and students advocacy groups argue that in nearly two decades since the 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, efforts to increase school safety have led to districts placing more police in schools, resulting in a punitive system of school discipline that disproportionately impacts black students.
Vanessa Roberts, executive director of Project VOYCE, a community advocacy organization in Denver, says “police cannot be trusted to keep us safe.”
“The same police officers killing black and brown people on the street are the same officers who roam school hallways,” she says.
The increased funding to support school resource officers, both at the state and federal level, also come at a time when school districts can’t afford a dedicated nurse or mental health counselor for each school.
According to a review of federal data by the ACLU, 1.7 million students are enrolled in schools that employ police officers but lack school counselors; 3 million are enrolled in schools that employ police officers but but lack nurses; 6 million are enrolled in schools that employ police officers but lack a psychologist; and a whopping 10 million are enrolled in schools that employ police officers but lack social workers.
In Houston, where Floyd graduated from Jack Yates High School before moving to Minneapolis years later, the school system, Houston Independent School District, runs its own police department with a budget of about $10 million and more than 200 officers on the payroll.
Now, in the wake of Floyd’s death, a coalition of civil rights and social justice groups are demanding the school board vote to divest from school policing and instead use the money to hire additional mental health counselors.
In Chicago, schools were already in the process of overhauling school police policies.
Floyd’s death has catapulted efforts in Chicago: Instead of trying to change how police officers are used in schools and what they can and cannot do, students, the city’s teachers union and community groups are now circulating a petition and calling for the $33 million the school system spends placing police in schools to be used instead to hire additional nurses and counselors.
Efforts to decrease police presence in schools are also taking hold in New York City, Phoenix and Seattle, as well as smaller urban school districts like Boulder, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; New Haven, Connecticut; Oakland, California; and others.
Seattle Public Schools plans to sever its partnership with city police for a year while it evaluates the role officers play in schools.
The matter is all but final in Oakland, where school Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel and a majority of the school board support a proposal to eliminate the use of about a dozen officers that patrol its 118 schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the issue in two weeks.
“The Oakland Unified School District has a long record of disproportionately punishing and arresting Black students, forcing them into the criminal justice system,” Nikki Fortunato Bas, an Oakland City Council member, said in a statement. “While Black students are 26% of OUSD students, they represent 73% of all students who are arrested.”
In Madison, Wisconsin, residents took the issue straight to the school board president, Gloria Reyes, gathering outside her home last week to protest and demand the removal of police from schools.
“The murder of George Floyd has changed a lot, and we have to reconsider the use of officers in schools. I don’t know what that looks like,” said Reyes, who came outside and spoke from the end of her driveway, according to local media reports. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we’re going to end the police contract. I will commit to looking at and reconsidering the use of officers in the schools and how we use them.”
Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said in a statement that he’s “dismayed” that school districts are considering discontinuing the use of officers and that “generalization is unfair to any segment of our population.”
“We do not believe in forming opinions about any large group based on the behavior of a few members,” he said.
Canady emphasized that the association teaches officers about implicit bias – the attitudes or stereotypes that affect how people act or make decisions unconsciously – how to recognize it and overcome it, though some school districts, he said, choose not to use the training module the association makes available.
“In communities that choose not to use NASRO training, we have little or no knowledge of how SROs are trained or behave,” he said. “If systemic, agency-wide law enforcement issues exist in such communities – and we acknowledge that is unfortunately possible – resolution is necessary and could require drastic measures.”
By and large, Canady underscored, school districts that follow the association’s best practices, including selecting officers carefully and providing them specialized training, have positive outcomes.
Principals and deans of students at Denver schools echoed that sentiment Thursday evening before the Denver School Board vote, describing school resource officers that they work with as “peace officers” who provide an important bridge to the community.
Removing them, they said, would be removing an invaluable member of the school community. They called the decision rushed and urged the board to enter into an evaluation period instead, arguing that public anger and pain toward law enforcement shouldn’t be directed at school resource officers.
“Such well-implemented programs can help communities bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth, building positive relationships that can last lifetimes, while helping to protect schools from a wide variety of threats,” he said. “In addition, they can do so while reducing referrals of students to the juvenile justice system.”
Canady pointed to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Justice Department that shows that as the use of school resource officers increased, juvenile arrests decreased nationwide through 2018.
School officials in Minneapolis acknowledged that the district employed some good school resource officers but that it was limited to those who took it upon themselves to understand the amount of inequity baked into the system for black students.
“Those are folks that do their work with an equity lens,” Eric Moore, chief of accountability, research and equity at Minneapolis schools, told Education Week in an interview. “But the challenge is that it’s not systemic. We have to make sure that when we have adults in front of our students, that people having equity lenses isn’t by happenstance, but that we’re very deliberate on doing that work. That’s our responsibility.”
Minneapolis school Superintendent Ed Graff must present to the school board a new safety plan by Aug. 18. School officials are already working to ensure that anyone hired in a security capacity comes to the job with a solid understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline and the power they wield over the trajectory of black students’ lives.
“You’ve eliminated the SRO position, but you still have to have [security positions] at the schools,” Moore said. “And I think it’s naive to think that those adults have not also been influenced by racism, white supremacist thought, issues of power and race. Whatever adult you bring in to support our students, they have to be made aware of concepts of power and privilege.”