• Terrence Wilson, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2020 •
An 11-year-old girl pushed against a brick wall and shoved to the ground in New Mexico, a 15-year-old girl grabbed by the neck and thrown to the ground in Florida, an 11-year-old boy slammed to the ground twice in North Carolina: These incidents from last year are just a few of the documented instances of school resource officers harming the students they are charged to protect. The experience of these students reflects that of many youth of color across the country.
School’s Police Presence Harm to Students
In a recent report, youth leaders documented over 60 cases since 2010 where students were injured through interaction with their school police (Advancement Project, 2019). School officials often explain that they use police to make schools safer, but the students in the examples above and many other students of color wonder if increased school policing comes at the cost of their safety and well-being.
Research shows that stationing police officers in schools is ineffective and potentially hazardous to the mental and physical health of students, particularly students of color. School-based police officers, often called “school resource officers,” do not make schools safer. In fact, researchers find that schools that add school resource officers fail to see a statistically significant change in the rate of serious violent, non-serious violent or property crime. (Chongmin & Gottfredson, 2011)
The presence of school resource officers is associated with more weapon and drug offenses at school and with higher rates of exclusionary discipline. (Fisher & Hennesy, 2016)
14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker for students.
The presence of school police negatively impacts students of color in particular. For example, Black students, who only account for 15% of the student population nationally, represent 31% of the referrals to law enforcement. Similarly, students of color, particularly Black male students, are disproportionately impacted by exclusionary discipline. For example, Black male students, who represent only 8% of students, receive 25% of the out-of-school suspensions. (OCR, 2018)
Growing Funding Streams for School Police
Despite these data showing harmful outcomes for students, more and more school districts are increasing school policing efforts. Although police officers have been present in schools for decades, the current expansion of school policing arises largely out of a response to school shooting incidents beginning with the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado (Brock, et al., 2018). Each high-profile school violence tragedy since then has led to a response at the federal, state and local levels to expand the scope and role of school policing operations.
News of school violence prompt calls for more cameras, metal detectors and other equipment to heighten police surveillance at schools. For example, after Columbine, the federal government through the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services implemented the Cops in Schools grant program. The program awarded about $823 million for schools to hire school resource officers, funding 7,242 positions in hundreds of communities across the United States from 1999 to 2005.
Federal investment was not limited to school resource officers. The Secure Our Schools federal grant program provided about $123 million from 2002 to 2011 to schools to purchase cameras, metal detectors and other security equipment.
The most recent federal expansion was a response to the tragic 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Congress passed the STOP School Violence Act, which provided $75 million in 2018 and will provide $100 million annually between 2019 and 2028 to expand policing activities and surveillance.
Several states throughout the U.S. South followed the federal government’s lead and introduced their own school security grant programs. For example, school policing funding in states across the U.S. South, since 2018 alone included $6 million in Virginia, $14 million in South Carolina, $69 million in North Carolina, $75 million in Tennessee, $85 million in Georgia, $100 million in Texas, and $400 million in Florida.
Research shows that these policing functions are usually located in communities of color. Low-income students and students of color are much more likely to experience intense security conditions in their schools than other students, even when taking into account neighborhood crime, school crime and school disorder (Nance, 2013). These funding increases will ensure that students will continue to be met with a police presence in their schools, even as many school leaders fail to invest in the personnel and resources that actually work to keep students safe.
An analysis of federal data showed that 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker for students (Whitaker, et al., 2019).
Lack of Training and Accountability
Unfortunately, additional funding for school police usually does not include appropriate requirements for training and accountability, so those who support students must monitor these systems of policing to ensure that all students are treated equitably.
The federal government requires specific training for school resource officers hired with federal grant funds, but relatively few are funded this way. Most states do not require specific school resource officer training at all.
According to the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning, only 29 states and Washington, D.C., had laws or regulations that required school-specific training for school resource officers as of 2019 (NCSSLE, 2020). In the U.S. South, only Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas require specific school-oriented law enforcement training. Georgia indicates that it is a best practice for school resource officers to receive additional training but stops short of mandating it.
In addition to a lack of training, data reporting from school police systems often do not collect all necessary aspects of school policing interactions. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, school districts must collect and report to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights the number and demographics of students referred to law enforcement. The data reporting system, while extremely important, usually is published years after it was collected, making monitoring current activities difficult.
Additionally, although some Southern states, such as Arkansas and Kentucky, included reporting requirements in their state laws to ensure compliance with federal reporting requirements, they only collect minimal data on the number of incidents and demographics and often do not collect data thoroughly and accurately across school districts.
This month, the Trump Administration released guidance through its new Federal School Safety Clearinghouse website (SchoolSafety.gov) that emphasizes policies, including threat assessment and reporting, increasing school police, and hardening school buildings through increased use of surveillance and security equipment. Such recommendations are potentially hazardous to students, particularly students of color, and do not focus on research-based, preventative and supportive interventions that create safe, productive school climates.
Recommendations for School Safety Policies
To ensure all students have the opportunity to learn in the safest environment possible, IDRA believes that police officers should never be a regular presence inside school buildings. However, if police officers are in schools, IDRA offers the following recommendations for education leaders, policymakers and communities.
- Limit involving police in schools to cases of emergency. If police are called to respond, they should be trained to understand the specific needs of students they interact within schools.
- Invest in effective research-based alternatives to school policing, such as restorative practices and conflict resolution. And invest in personnel, like school psychologists, social workers, and counselors who create safer, stronger schools.
- Ensure teachers, administrators and staff are fully trained in research-based alternatives that are culturally-sustaining so they do not rely on police officers to address issues that are non-criminal and non-emergencies (Gage, 2015).
- Develop clear policies specifying that police officers should not handle routine discipline issues.
- Ensure counselor-to-student ratios meet recommended levels before spending resources on school-based police.
- Require youth-focused training and continued professional development for school police officers to maintain their licenses.
- Require yearly, state-level data collection about policing activities in every school district, disaggregated by campus, race, gender, offense type and responses used.
- Create systems of accountability that enable parents, teachers, students and communities to review policing policies, incidents, and hiring, firing, and discipline procedures.
- Prohibit the use of tasers, pepper spray, weapons, restraints and corporal punishment on students in schools.
Advancement Project. (2019). We Came to Learn – A Call to Action for Police Free Schools. Washington, D.C.: Advancement Project; Alliance for Educational Justice.
Brock, M., Norma Kriger, N., & Miró, R. (February 2018). School Safety Policies and Programs Administered by the U.S. Federal Government: 1990-2016. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.
Fisher, B.W., & Hennesy, E.A. (2016). “School Resource Officers and Exclusionary Discipline in U.S. High Schools: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Adolescent Research Review.
Nance, J.P. (2013). “Students, Security, and Race,” Emory Law Journal.
National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. (2020). School Discipline Laws and Regulations by Category and State: School Resource and Safety Officers and Truant/Attendance Officer – Certification or Training. Washington, D.C.: American Institutes for Research.
Office for Civil Rights. (2018). 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Climate and Safety. U.S. Department of Education.
Whitaker, A., Torres-Guillén, S., Morton, M., Jordan, H., Coyle, S., Mann, A., & Sun, W. (2019). Cops and No Counselors – How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Students. New York, N.Y.: ACLU.
Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]