School Climate & Safety

Educators Support Black Lives Matter, But Still Want Police in Schools, Survey Shows

By Holly Kurtz — June 25, 2020 9 min read

The social justice movement sweeping the country is forcing the K-12 education system to take a hard look at how it treats students of color, why it has taken so long to recognize the need for change, and what approaches would work best to build a better system for all students.

To get a clearer picture of where educators stand on these issues and how they think schools should address them, the EdWeek Research Center conducted a survey June 17-18 of 1,150 teachers, principals, and district leaders. It found that most educators support the Black Lives Matter movement; they oppose measures to remove armed police officers from schools; they overwhelmingly believe school police officers in their own districts treat students of color fairly despite nationwide statistics to the contrary; and most attribute racial discipline disparities in schools to discrimination.

Here is a look at five key findings from that survey:

1. Educators Are More Likely Than the General Population to Voice Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement

As racial justice protests have swept the nation in response to the death of a Black man at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has reached unprecedented levels. Levels of support increased almost as much in the two weeks after George Floyd’s death as it had in the past two years, according to the survey research firm Civiqs. A Pew Research Center poll conducted online June 4-10 found that 67 percent of Americans say they somewhat or strongly support Black Lives Matter.

Support is even stronger among the nation’s teachers, principals, and district leaders, the EdWeek Research Center found: 81 percent of educators report that they support the movement.

Roughly 80 percent of the nation’s educators are white. However, compared with the white population as whole, educators are still more likely to say they support Black Lives Matter (83 percent versus 61 percent, according to the EdWeek Research Center and Pew).

Eighty-five percent of non-white educators reported supporting the movement. (Because educators are overwhelming white, we are not able to provide statistically viable results for specific races or ethnicities because too few educators from those groups responded to this survey.)

Among educators, support for the movement is stronger among females, Northeasterners, residents in suburban and urban areas and towns, and those who work in districts with higher percentages of Black students. Support is weaker among males, Westerners, residents of rural areas, and those who work in districts with lower percentages of Black students.

2. Some Black Lives Matter Activists Say Armed Police Should Be Removed From Schools. Educators Disagree.

The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by a white man in the gated Florida community where Martin was visiting relatives, was acquitted of murder. It later became associated with protests related to other Black people, such as George Floyd, who died while in police custody. In the wake of these protests, some activists have demanded that the movement call for the abolishment of police in schools. School board members in districts including Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland, Ore., have responded, severing or considering severing ties with local police departments. The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, issued a resolution this month supporting Black Lives Matter and replacing local law enforcement with “[s]chool security personnel…trained as peace officers and integrated within the school community, with a focus on nonviolent resolution of conflicts with a minimal use of force.”

Despite their high levels of support for Black Lives Matter and the reexamination of the role of law enforcement by school boards and union leaders, most of the rank-and-file educators who responded to the EdWeek Research Center survey oppose the removal of armed police officers from schools. Just 23 percent say that armed police officers should be eliminated from our nation’s schools—although support for severing ties with law enforcement ranges from 36 percent in the Northeast to 13 percent in the southern United States.

Fifty-eight percent of schools in the United States had a sworn law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week in 2017-18, the most recent year for which federal data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And 54 percent of survey respondents believe that armed police officers belong in the schools in districts where they work.

The perception that armed officers belong in local schools is significantly more common among high school teachers and principals (67 percent) than among those who work in elementary schools (51 percent). It’s also more prevalent among teachers, principals, and district leaders in large districts with 10,000 or more students (69 percent) than in smaller districts with less than 2,500 students (41 percent).

Support for the presence of armed officers in local schools is significantly higher in the South, where 71 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders say it’s necessary, compared with other regions in the country, which hover around 50 percent.

3. Most Educators Support Police Because They Want Protection Against Outsiders, Shootings. But Nearly 1 in 3 Want Protection Against Students.

Research is mixed when it comes to whether or not police officers actually make schools safer. Yet nearly 3 out of 4 teachers, principals, and district leaders say that they need armed school police officers in case someone comes into the building with the intent of doing harm to students and staff.

A much smaller percentage say schools need officers to protect teachers from students rather than outsiders. Thirty percent of survey respondents say that they need armed police officers in their schools because too many students are out of control. This view is much more common among teachers (39 percent) than among principals (20 percent) or district leaders (22 percent).

A forthcoming study to be published in the peer-refereed journal Social Problems found that school police officers in a mostly white and affluent district tended to see their role as protecting schools from outsiders while their counterparts in a district with higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students were more likely to perceive that the threats came from the students themselves. The two districts were located in communities with similar juvenile arrest rates, suggesting that the officers were not responding to actual disparities in youth crime.

School shootings are an additional and common justification for placing police in schools. A little more than half of survey respondents (58 percent) believe the country would have more deaths from school shootings if armed police officers were eliminated from schools.

4. Despite Evidence to the Contrary, Educators Believe That School Police Officers Treat Students of Color Fairly

National statistics show that Black students are disproportionately impacted by the presence of police in schools. For example, an EdWeek Research Center analysis of federal data found that, in 2013-14, Black students made up 16 percent of the student population, but represented 33 percent of the students arrested at school. Statistics like these are sometimes cited by Black Lives Matter activists as reasons why armed police officers do not belong in schools, especially since Black students are more likely to attend schools with police officers than are white students.

Yet the vast majority of survey respondents who work in districts where armed police officers are stationed at schools strongly believe that those officers treat students of color fairly. Asked to what extent, if any, the armed police officers in their district’s schools treated students of color fairly, 22 percent of teachers, principals and district leaders said they did not know. (Respondents were only asked the question if they indicated that their district’s schools did have armed officers.) Of those who did have an opinion, 91 percent selected “a lot,” meaning they strongly believed officers treated students of color fairly.

One reason why Black Lives Matter activists are concerned about school arrest rates is that even an apprehension for a relatively minor infraction can ensnare students in the criminal justice system, leading to longer-term involvement as adults.

Yet fewer than 1 in 4 teachers, principals, and district leaders (23 percent) believe that armed police officers contribute to the “school-to-prison” pipeline by disproportionately arresting/ticketing students of color. The percentage of educators who share this belief ranges from 17 percent in the South to 33 percent in the Northeast. Urban educators are more than twice as likely as their rural counterparts to hold this view (40 percent versus 15 percent). This view is also significantly more common among educators in districts where three quarters or more of the students are non-white (33 percent) than among those in districts where less than a quarter of the students are non-white (19 percent).

5. Educators Are Most Likely to Attribute Black/White Student Discipline Disparities to Discrimination.

In addition to facing higher rates of arrest at school, Black students are also much more likely than whites to experience so-called exclusionary discipline measures such as suspension or expulsion that lead to missing out on instructional time.

On the EdWeek Research Center survey, teachers, principals, and district leaders were asked the extent to which nine different factors explained why this is the case.

The respondents were most likely to say that Blacks faced higher discipline rates than whites because whites encounter less discrimination. Eighty-seven percent said discrimination contributed to the disparity. This belief was more common among educators in lower-poverty districts where less than a quarter of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals than in the highest-poverty districts where three quarters or more of students are from low-income families (97 percent versus 87 percent).

That response was also more common in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, where more than 90 percent believe discrimination plays a role, than in the South, where 83 percent share that view. White educators were more likely than non-whites to blame discrimination (91 percent versus 83 percent). And, while 95 percent of urban educators say discrimination leads to discipline disparities, 85 percent of their rural counterparts agreed.

The second most commonly accepted explanation was that whites live in lower-crime neighborhoods. Eighty-two percent said this helped explain the disparity.

Educators are less likely to blame neighborhood crime if they work in higher-poverty districts, and/or live in the Southern United States.

A majority of educators (78 percent) also said that disparities in white and Black families’ incomes led to white/Black discipline disparities. And 3 out of 4 say Blacks get disciplined more than whites because whites attend higher-quality schools. This view was slightly less common in the South than elsewhere in the United States.

Seven percent of educators said that white/Black discipline disparities are at least slightly attributable to genetic factors that lead white students to commit fewer infractions than Black students. Nineteen percent say Blacks are disciplined more than whites because white parenting is more effective, a perspective that is more common among males than females and among urban than suburban educators. And nearly 1 in 3 educators (31 percent) say discipline disparities are at least slightly explained by white parents valuing education more than Black parents and/or white students being more motivated than their Black counterparts.

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