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.”

Betsy DeVos Wants to Reverse Efforts to Bring Some Degree of Racial Justice to School Discipline

Donald Trump’s administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been rolling back Obama-era regulations in the Department of Education along with weakening investigations by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Using the terrible Parkland, Florida school shooting as an excuse, Trump and DeVos are now threatening to throw out Obama era guidance designed to reduce zero-tolerance school discipline policies. Designed to block the school to prison pipeline, the Obama rules reversed school discipline practices that overly suspended and expelled African American students and and put too many of these students on a path into the criminal justice system.  It is essential that Trump and DeVos be stopped from undermining efforts to bring more humane and fairer discipline policies to public schools.

The 2014 guidance policies DeVos and Trump are threatening to eliminate were designed to address the fact that for a long time black and brown students, poor students, and students in special education have been suspended and expelled out of school at far greater rates than white and middle class students. The rules also tried to reduce a policy in some schools to bring in specially trained police to work in schools. These people, called School Resource Officers, are more likely to press charges for what have traditionally been discipline problems handled in school, a process that has delivered a growing number of adolescents into the courts and sometimes into juvenile detention, where too many of these young people may be drawn into further criminal activity.

In her NY Times story yesterday on Trump and DeVos’s plan to roll back protections against disparate discipline policies, Erica Green describes the problem: “When the guidance was issued, federal data found that African American students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended, and that more than 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests or who were referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or African American.”

Green quotes Dan Losen from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA: “Children’s safety also includes protection from oppression and bigotry and injustice… Fear-mongering and rhetoric that criminalizes youth of color, children from poor families and children with disabilities should not be tolerated.”

In 2014, when the Obama era guidelines were issued, the NY Times reported on a 35-page document from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. that outlined the need for a new, less punitive, and less racially disparate approach to school discipline: “The Obama administration issued guidelines on Wednesday that recommended public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies that have disproportionately increased the number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions of minority students for even minor, nonviolent offenses… The administration advised schools to focus on creating positive environments, setting clear expectations and consequences for students, and ensuring fairness and equity in disciplinary measures. It also called for districts to collect data on school-based arrests, citations and searches, as well as suspensions and expulsions, and reminded schools of civil rights laws protecting students.”

It is deceptive and tragic for Trump and DeVos to use the school shooting in Parkand, Florida as a justification for questioning the 2014 guidelines.  As Erica Green points out yesterday, “Mr. Cruz is white, and far from evading school disciplinary procedures, he had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas.”  She adds that although the young man who shot his former peers was expelled, “Broward County was hailed as a leader in the Obama-era discipline reforms, and has trumpeted the district’s crackdown on punitive discipline measure and its large reduction in student arrests.  Its discipline program, Promise, dates back to 2013—one year before the Obama guidance was issued.  Florida’s work in discipline reform dated back to at least 2009, when Charlie Crist, the Republican governor at the time, signed legislation to curb so called zero-tolerance policies…. Mr. Cruz was known to law enforcement, which never found cause to arrest him, and a report of troublesome behavior to the F.B.I. went unheeded.”

The Trump administration’s attempt to shift the blame to school discipline is clearly a response to National Rifle Association pressure to shift the conversation away from regulating firearms.

What is clear in Parkland, Florida is that Mr. Cruz, who killed 17 people, was well known in the community and in the Broward County Schools as a seriously troubled youth.  Lots of people in his schools had tried to help him, and he had been repeatedly disciplined. There are no quick and easy answers when it comes to helping troubled youths.

A Washington Post investigation last month demonstrated that multiple attempts to counsel Cruz and a long series of disciplinary actions including Cruz’s ultimate expulsion were not enough.  Many people had tried to intervene but were unable to help him: “The real problems started at least as early as middle school and quickly intensified. There were the vocal outbursts, disturbing drawings of stick figures with guns, constant disciplinary issues.  There were threatening statements written on his homework and scrap paper…. His middle school and high school teachers referred him to individual and family counseling, the records show. They held parent conferences and called social workers. They sent him to in-school suspension, and they sent him off campus. For a time, they sent him to a school for emotionally disturbed youth. Finally, after he was disciplined for an assault at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, they asked for an assessment of the threat he posed to his school, and ultimately he was expelled, about a year before he returned with a gun.”

The Post‘s reporters also describe Broward County Schools’ attempt to develop a less punitive and less disparate discipline system: “Broward has seen a dramatic decline in the number of students who are arrested at school. In 2011-2012, Broward recorded 1,056 school-based arrests; by 2015-2016, that number had fallen 63 percent to 392 school-based arrests.”  What seems perfectly clear is that Broward County’s reforms to reduce punitive discipline and school-based arrests were neither a direct cause of Nikolas Cruz’s emotional problems nor his action to attack students and adults at his former high school. What might have made a difference would have been regulations to prevent his acquiring a semi-automatic rifle.

The attack by President Trump and his Education Secretary on federal rules protecting the civil rights of students from unfair discipline policies and reducing the number of students flowing into the school-prison pipeline is not only a misplaced attempt to erase President Obama’s influence on the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, but it is also a distraction from what ought to be the focus if our society wants to protect our young people: gun control.