In the aftermath of the tragic police killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests of police brutality that have followed, the Schott Foundation for Public Education comments: “We want to lift up one ray of hope in this dark moment: The Minneapolis Board of Education made in important step… when it voted to sever its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department… which until now had been the recipient of more than $1 million in education funds to put its officers in schools… The danger of police officers in schools—and their contribution to creating the school-to-prison pipeline that threatens so many children of color—is well documented and their removal has been a central demand of education justice organizations that Schott is proud to support….”
Several school districts have followed the lead of the Minneapolis Board of Education including the schools of Rochester, New York, and Portland, Oregon. It also looks as though the members of the Denver, Colorado Board of Education will vote to terminate the employment of police school resource officers, known everywhere these days as SROs.
In a short, 2015 guidance document, the American Civil Liberties Union explains why police guards do not belong in public schools: “Many under-resourced schools become pipeline gateways by placing increased reliance on police rather than teachers and administrators to maintain discipline. Growing numbers of districts employ school resource officers to patrol school hallways, often with little or no training in working with youth. As a result, children are far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests—the majority of which are for nonviolent offenses, such as disruptive behavior—than they were a generation ago. The rise in school-based arrests, the quickest route from the classroom to the jailhouse, most directly exemplifies the criminalization of school children.” The ACLU condemns “zero-tolerance policies that automatically impose severe punishment regardless of circumstances. Under these policies, students have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. Rates of suspension have increased dramatically in recent years—from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000—and have been most dramatic for children of color. Overly harsh disciplinary policies push students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system. Suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities; they also can easily fall behind in their coursework, leading to a greater likelihood of disengagement and dropouts.”
Jason P. Nance of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, examines the growing use of school resource officers and the simultaneous growth in the number of students arrested: “In the late 1970s, there were fewer than one hundred police officers in our public schools, but this number grew significantly in the years that followed…. (I)n 1997, there were approximately 12,300 SROs employed by local law enforcement agencies nationwide. In 2003, the number of full time SROs jumped to 19,900. In 2007, the number of SROs dropped slightly to 19,088.”
Nance continues: “Although lawmakers, police departments, and school officials expanded SRO programs to enhance school safety in the wake of rising juvenile crime rates and high-profile school shootings, they… expanded SRO programs despite the potentially harmful effects that SROs may have on the educational setting. For example, strict security measures in and of themselves can harm the educational climate by alienating students and generating mistrust, which, paradoxically, may lead to even more disorder and violence. Furthermore, putting more SROs in schools may involve more students in the criminal justice system, even for low-level violations of school behavioral codes. Indeed, perhaps the most significant challenge of having SROs in schools is that while SROs may be in schools primarily to enhance school safety, many SROs also become involved in student disciplinary matters that educators traditionally have handled and should continue to handle… The problems with SROs handling student disciplinary issues are multifaceted. Whereas teachers and school officials have advanced academic credentials, receive training in child psychology, discipline, pedagogy, and educational theory, and are accountable to local school boards, SROs are trained in law enforcement, have little or no training in developmental psychology or pedagogy, and are not accountable to school boards. Thus, an SRO’s decision to arrest a student may be based on criteria that are wholly distinct from and even anathema to the best interests of the student or the school as a whole.”
As students are arrested, they are propelled into the juvenile justice system. A 2018 report from the Dignity in Schools Campaign, Police in Schools Are Not the Answer to School Shootings, documents racial bias that too frequently accompanies in-school policing: “Research shows that police officers perceive Black youth differently than they do white youth, and this bias, not any actual difference in behavior, leads to the over-criminalization of students of color. Police see Black children as less “childlike” than their White peers and overestimate the age and culpability of Black children accused of an offense more than they do for white children accused of an offense… There are significant harms to young people attending schools that over-police. Research shows that a first-time arrest doubles the odds that a student will drop out of high school, and a first-time court appearance quadruples the odds. The American Psychological Association, Council of State Governments, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have all found that extreme discipline, including arrests, predict grade retention, school dropout, and future involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. As a result, students face lasting consequences, not only in the justice system, but also when applying for college, the military, or a job.”
Advancement Project has worked for over a decade with other national organizations and school districts to create a respectful overall school climate through the development and implementation of restorative discipline. Restorative discipline emphasizes learning over punishment with the explicit goal of helping students more fully engage in school. In an online resource for educators, Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools, Advancement Project explains: “Restorative justice is an evidence-based practice effectively used to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary referrals. Restorative justice focuses on righting a wrong committed and repairing the harm done… Community conferencing… involves the participation of each person affected by the behavior and allows all stakeholders to contribute to the conflict resolution process. Community service allows for individuals to restore a harm they may have committed to the school community by providing a meaningful service that contributes to their individual improvement. Peer juries allow student who have broken a rule and trained student jurors to collectively discuss why the rule was broken, who was affected and how the referred student can repair the harm caused… Conflict resolution programs provide students with problem-solving and self control skills… Peer mediation is a demonstrably effective youth leadership model that trains students to help other students resolve their differences… Informal restorative practices are small ways educators and other school personnel can influence a positive environment… Social-emotional learning teaches skills such as recognizing and managing emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically.”
Advancement Project explains how restorative practices transform the school climate: “Restorative practices… can improve relationships between students, between students and educators, and even between educators, whose behavior often serves as a role model for students. They allow each member of the school community to develop and implement a school’s adopted core values. Restorative practices also represent a mindset that can help guide adult and youth behavior and relationship management in schools… When the whole school is infused with restorative strategies, it becomes easier to address issues faster and respond in a thoughtful way because the caring and supportive culture is already present.”
One positive development following the tragic police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide outpouring of grief and outrage has been that a growing number of school districts are choosing to handle student discipline in the school itself without armed police patrolling their school hallways and pushing students into the juvenile justice system.
For more resources on the school-to-prison pipeline and problems with armed police employed as school resource officers, check the websites of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Teaching Tolerance and the American Civil Liberties Union.