Just over a year ago, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was captured in a nine-and-a-half minute video that has irrevocably changed the contours of K-12 schooling.
Watching the gruesome video, parents saw the faces of their Black sons. Teachers saw the faces of the Black students they had taught, or would teach, or might never get to teach. Black students saw themselves.
The resulting activism has pushed teacher diversity, curriculum reform, and anti-racist training to the top of district leaders’ agendas. But the most immediate and most tangible response has been how it’s refueled the police-free schools movement.
As even school safety advocates acknowledge, the research on whether school policing makes for safer campuses is generally not promising. Studies show some evidence that police in schools are associated with higher levels of behavioral incidents and higher incidence of arrests at schools, and sometimes with rises in discipline rates. Taken together, Black Lives Matter advocates say, school policing creates a “school to prison” pipeline that disproportionately shunts Black students into the juvenile justice system.
Since Floyd’s death in May 2020, 33 school districts have eliminated their school police officers, affecting about 820,000 students, according to an Education Week analysis of media clips. Two other large districts, Chicago and Los Angeles, have significantly cut the school-policing portion of their budgets, bringing the total number of students who in theory will experience a reduced police presence this fall to to about 1.65 million.
These changes, though, don’t always affect Black students, who have been the most vocal about the impact of policing on their day-to-day experiences in schools. Only 10 of these districts have a student population that is a quarter or more Black, and only Columbus, Ohio; Milwaukee; and Rochester, N.Y., have student bodies that are more than half Black. (In fact, some heavily Black districts, like Prince George’s County, Md., have decided to keep school police even as they consider other safety plan revisions.)
The number of police officers working inside schools has steadily grown since the late 1990s, most recently following the 2012 mass shooting of 20 children and six school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the 2018 massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Hundreds of administrators rushed to harden their campuses, some prompted by state laws requiring armed police officers or guardians at schools, others by the demands of fearful parents.
Floyd’s killing, though, showed many Americans for the first time that police can also inflict violence, and that violence can disproportionately be aimed at Black people. In a handful of districts, that new awareness may prove to be school policing’s undoing.
“I think at a very basic level, people have increased awareness about state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown people and are starting to make the connection that putting police in schools by that same logic increases the risk of violence and brutality against Black and brown youth,” said Cara McClellan, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for the removal of police and security personnel from schools.
“Obviously, we still have a long way to go in terms of people moving beyond just understanding the risk,” she continued, “to really having our policy and our budget reflect that we’re not going to tolerate that risk anymore.”
A complex portrait emerges in districts that have reduced police presence
Education Week reporters reached out to dozens of districts that overhauled their school safety programs in the wake of last summer’s protests for racial justice. Even in those districts that pulled police officers from schools, complex questions about safety remain.
Many districts are still wrestling with what exactly to replace school resource officer programs with that both keeps classrooms safe and doesn’t result in profiling aimed at Black students. Some of the districts that have removed police, like Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio, are keeping or hiring on more security officers or “safety specialists” who may not be trained to work with students, to fill in for the lost positions. That has fueled palpable skepticism among student activists about whether the changes will truly alter the over-surveillance of Black students.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to assess the impact of alternatives because, in many of the districts, students didn’t return to in-person schooling until well into the spring—not enough time to complete professional development for staff, onboard new student-support staff, or gauge how the new strategies are working.
Nor, district leaders acknowledge, does removing school resources officers, or SROs, guarantee that children will not encounter police while at school. In most instances, police will still be able to enter school grounds, and in some cases—such as a felony that occurs on campus—administrators will be obligated to call 911.
“We will need to call the police—whether it is a mandatory reporting event, or significant vandalism, or a car accident, or if kids experience sexual assault, or trauma at home. And if we do, we want the right person to show up,” said Aaron Engel, the superintendent in the La Crosse, Wis., district, noting that SROs in La Crosse receive specialized training in de-escalation, mental health first aid, and racial justice that other police may not receive.
Finally, the new efforts hinge on painstaking cultural work to convince teachers and parents that administrators can ensure student safety without the traditional signifiers—gates, officers, metal detectors. Many districts said they plan to use some savings for additional training to put new safety protocols into place and to prevent staff from expecting police to solve disciplinary matters.
That’s not always happening as quickly as student activists want.
Brianna Washington, a sophomore in the La Crosse district and the co-president of Black Student Leaders, agrees that district staff need to take racism and bias more seriously. But she’s frustrated by what she sees as the slow pace of change in her schools.
“Why do you need another training for [staff] to better help kids? Why would you put them in a school building if they’re not ready to support kids who have trauma that’s passed down from generation to generation?” she asked. “How long do we have to do trainings?”
Putting new SRO data in context
Interpreting EdWeek’s findings in a national context poses a significant challenge.
From one vantage point, the figures are quite small—probably too few to legitimately call a trend, since the country has more than 13,000 school districts in total. (Nearly half of schools host an SRO at least once a week, according to federal data from 2017-18.)
“I think you don’t necessarily have anything here, because these are blips on the screen,” said Matthew Mayer, an associate professor of educational psychology at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University who studies violence prevention and school safety in educational settings.
But from another perspective, it’s a significant phenomenon, especially given that school policing continues to be broadly popular in communities, especially among parents. A nationally representative poll from 2018 found that four in five parents supported having armed police officers in schools, and that a third of parents worried about their children’s safety at school.
In Maine’s largest district, Portland, SRO Michael Bennis once intervened in what was shaping up to be an active shooter event with a person loading a rifle outside of Portland High School when he was on his morning security check around the building. (The person was not targeting the school, but the building next to it.)
And in 2019, the police department received a call about a person armed inside a school bathroom, which Bennis also responded to before it escalated.
The district removed its two SROs last July amid vociferous debate. But those are the kinds of anecdotes that tend to provide powerful incentive to keep officers in place, even as law enforcement officials acknowledge that they are rare.
“Some of the benefits we saw with SROs was not only having them there as a safety net for those infrequent but very high-risk type of calls like active threats, but I think more importantly, the ability of our police officers to positively engage with our youth in this city is going to be something that will be missed in this community for years to come,” said Portland Police Chief Frank Clark.
School policing isn’t always an either-or
Perhaps reflecting that complex reality, some of the districts’ approaches fall on a continuum rather than a binary. A handful of the districts identified by EdWeek made material changes to their programs, but did not completely remove their SROs. This approach, in effect, tries to satisfy newfound concerns about policing, while appeasing parents who insist school officers have value.
La Crosse has reduced the number of officers from five to three for the 2021-22 school year, and will step down from three to two the following year; officers will no longer be assigned to specific schools and will now wear plain clothes.
The two SROs in Bloomington, Ind., schools will no longer be armed. And the Edmonds, Wash., district has reverted back to a liaison model, where schools are part of an officer’s patrol area, but no officer is actually stationed in a school.
There’s little to suggest that any of those newer approaches are better than traditional school policing, and in general, safety experts say that the lack of good empirical evidence has hampered district officials’ ability to think about safety in fresh ways.
“One of the things I’m most confident in from the researcher and the practitioner side is that there is still a lot of focus that has to be put on how we do [school-based policing],” said Joseph McKenna, a former associate director of the Texas School Safety Center and district school safety leader. “We’re all caught up in, should we do it or should we not do it. I don’t think we are talking about how we do it.”
The notion that school police can effectively be trained to bring new knowledge to bear on the job is an article of faith among training organizations like the National Association of School Resource Officers. And the concept underpins state laws that specify special curricula that SROs must follow before entering schools.
But police-free school advocates like McClellan reject this theory out of hand, saying the institution of policing is too badly broken to be fixed.
New laws constrain some movement on SROs
The question of just how the field should weigh the effects of a traumatic, destabilizing, and history-making year remains an open one.
Mayer, the Rutgers professor, says he’s pessimistic that the contours of school policing will change much. So much school policy, he points out, is based on reactive shifts, rather than on broader conversations about how to strike the right balance between structure, discipline, and oversight on one hand and nurturing, support, caring, and avenues for success on the other.
“Every few years we have the Parkland shooting, or the Newtown shooting, or some other horrific event, and then you get the commissions, the politicians. And nothing changes to a great degree because we’re not that interested in more profound and lasting change,” he said.
Indeed, the EdWeek data indicate that there are whole portions of the country where, despite local activism, little movement has occurred. McKenna, who is now a senior research associate at WestEd’s Justice & Prevention Research Center, couldn’t recall a single one of Texas’ 1,200 districts that appears to have reduced the number of SROs in direct response to the events of the last year.
In some places, existing laws passed in the wake of school shootings make it much more difficult to consider alternatives to policing.
Maryland requires all schools to have an SRO or “adequate police coverage.” Florida law requires every school to either have an SRO or an armed guardian. (Data show that the Florida law has produced a remarkable rise in the number of school police, particularly at the elementary level.)
But anti-policing advocates return to a truism that history has always borne out: Changing public policy is slow. It proceeds in fits and starts. That a handful of K-12 districts have achieved what no city hall has yet managed to do—end policing within their sphere of influence—is still a resonant shift.
“There has been movement as a result of this student-led advocacy to remove police from schools,” McClellan concluded. “It isn’t enough.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as Defunded, Removed, and Put in Check: School Police a Year After George Floyd