Last June, after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Washington Post reported that school districts across the United States suddenly felt obligated to take seriously the warnings from civil rights organizations about problems when school districts hire armed police as so-called “Student Resource Officers”:
“For years, civil rights activists have worked to remove police officers from the nation’s public schools, arguing that they pose a greater risk to students of color than the intruders they’re supposed to guard against. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a shift that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago is underway: Several major school systems have canceled their contracts with police, and others are mounting pressure to do the same.” School districts named by the Post last June included: Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Oakland, and West Contra Costa Unified School District in California.
Now, the New York Times reports that last week another large school district, the Los Angeles Unified School District, approved a plan to eliminate a third of the armed police guards in the city’s public schools: “After a months-long push by students in the nation’s second-largest public school system, leaders in Los Angeles approved a plan on Tuesday to cut the district’s security force by a third, joining a growing number of cities that have reduced the presence of police officers in school hallways… The vote on Tuesday… would also ban the use of pepper spray on students and divert $25 million to programs supporting students of color. It was the result of months of meetings on how best to reconfigure public safety in the district, which serves about 650,000 students… The plan… eliminates 70 sworn officers, who have arrest powers; 62 nonsworn officers; and one support staff member, leaving 211 officers on the district’s force. Officers at secondary schools in Los Angeles will be replaced with ‘climate coaches’ from the community who will mentor students, help resolve conflicts and address implicit bias.”
Employment of armed police guards in public schools accelerated after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. The stated purpose was making schools safer, but bringing police into school has at the same time accelerated another alarming problem known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Young people in school are likely to make mistakes and likely to struggle to resolve conflicts, but when fights result in arrests by police (now called “School Resource Officers”) the students end up in the juvenile justice system—in court and in juvenile detention centers—instead of in the principal’s or a counselor’s office. And because of the structural institutional biases that pervade our society, a huge percentage of the students propelled into court and detention are poor, Black, and Brown.
Advocates for justice at school, and advocates for school policies designed to support students through normal adolescent development have spent two decades pleading for handling school discipline in school instead of in court, and for increasing counseling and mental health staff to support the fair resolution of student conflicts and discipline. The trend of school districts contracting with their police departments to handle student discipline has grown simultaneously with the widespread reduction in school counselors, social workers, and mental health support professionals as public school budgets have declined.
In the introduction to a major report, We Came to Learn from the civil rights agency, Advancement Project, the agency’s former executive director explains: “There is a culture clash that exists between law enforcement and the learning environment: police enforce criminal laws, while schools are supposed to nurture students… This report… documents the school policing model and discusses how school police became institutionalized in America’s public education system through funding and policy at both the federal and local level.”
Collaborating to promote fairer school discipline and school policy that supports normal child and adolescent development, Advancement Project, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Schott Foundation for Public Education published Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools, a guide for institutionalizing restorative practices as an alternative not only to the employment of armed police as School Resource Officers but also to the overuse of suspension and expulsion of students out of school: “Restorative practices are processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing. Restorative practices are increasingly being applied in individual schools and school districts to address youth behavior, rule violations, and to improve school climate and culture… Restorative practices allow individuals who may have committed harm to take full responsibility for their behavior by addressing the individuals affected by the behavior. Taking responsibility requires understanding how the behavior affected others, acknowledging that the behavior was harmful to others, taking action to repair the harm and making changes necessary to avoid such behavior in the future.”
An enormous coalition of national, statewide and local organizations, the Dignity in Schools Campaign explains its mission: “challenging the systemic problem of pushout in our nation’s schools and working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.” In a short two page brief, the Dignity in Schools Campaign explains Why Counselors, Not Cops:
“The presence of police in schools has escalated dramatically in the last several decades, and the figures on arrests and referrals to law enforcement show disproportionate targeting of black and Latino students. This is just one aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline, where some students are denied an opportunity to succeed, and instead are pushed out of school and into the juvenile or criminal justice system… (I)t is clear that students and their families are criminalized, and that school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement go up when police have a regular presence in schools… For immigrant and undocumented students, bringing police into the school building can lead to deportation for themselves or their families… Counselors, wrap-around services and strong relationships with caring adults give struggling students support, and keep students who may need interventions from falling through the cracks.”