Another School District Ends Contract with City Police for Security Guards: Will Improve Counseling and School Climate

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.”

Minneapolis and Growing List of Other School Districts Cease Employing Armed Police as School Resource Officers

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, OregonIt 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.