School Climate & Safety

Nation’s Largest Teachers’ Union Calls for Curbs on School Policing

By Madeline Will — July 05, 2022 6 min read
School Security Guard walking on a school yard.
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The nation’s largest teachers’ union adopted a new policy statement calling for an end to the “criminalization and policing of students"—but stopped short of urging the removal of armed officers on school campuses.

Last year, National Education Association delegates established a task force to explore the role of law enforcement in education. The task force—which included teachers and at least one school security guard—has since developed a policy statement on how to achieve “safe, just, and equitable schools” and published a 73-page report outlining the group’s analysis and rationale.

During the NEA’s representative assembly this week, delegates voted by a wide margin—93 percent in favor—to approve the policy statement, which advocates for restorative justice, culturally competent professional development, family and community engagement, and the elimination of inequities in student discipline and the policing of students on campus.

While the policy statement does not call for the removal of school police, the accompanying report warns that the presence of uniformed, armed law enforcement and security personnel at school contribute to the criminalization and policing of students. It also emphasizes that students of color are disproportionately affected.

This policy statement replaces the NEA’s previous one on discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline, which was adopted in 2016. That policy statement did not mention school resource officers (SROs), or campus-based law enforcement.

A new chapter in the NEA’s stance on school police

The national union’s stance on school police has evolved over the years. In 2013, after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NEA supported federal efforts to fund more armed police officers in schools. Yet last year, NEA delegates confirmed their opposition to the use of federal funds to create, maintain, train, and grow a law enforcement presence on school campuses.

“I’m proud of us that we’re learning and growing,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in an interview. “A lot of this stems from our decision to take on institutional racism. And we have learned a lot—all of us.”

An Education Week analysis of federal data found that in most of the country, Black students are arrested at school at disproportionately high levels. And research based on interviews with school resource officers has found that race was a key factor in their perception of threatening behavior. Those working in an urban, diverse district tended to see students as the greatest threat to safety, citing fights, bullying, and aggression, while those working in a suburban, majority white district tended to view intruders from outside the school as the greatest threat to safety.

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The newly approved policy statement “calls on NEA leaders and members to work toward models that restrict law enforcement activity to appropriate public safety roles and end the policing of students,” the task force’s report says. “In addition, we must provide models and leadership to limit the growth of the SRO workforce and ensure that precious school funding dollars are spent not on police but on staff and programs that enhance the well-being of all students.”

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of police, a small number of school districts began to reconsider their use of school resource officers. From May 2020 through June 2022, at least 50 districts serving over 1.7 million children ended their school policing programs or cut their budgets, according to an Education Week analysis.

But school shootings—including the recent one that killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas—have caused some to restart their programs and other districts to bolster them, despite limited evidence of their effectiveness in preventing such tragedies.

Pringle said in an interview that she can’t give a definitive answer about whether she believes armed school resource officers have a place in schools. The NEA counts some SROs as members.

"[This policy statement] is about making sure that we have professionals in those buildings that have the training and ongoing involvement and engagement with the education community,” she said.

The policy statement emphasizes the NEA’s commitment to restorative justice, trauma-informed instruction, and cultural competence among educators so they can understand their own implicit biases. The union also demands an end to federal programs that provide military weapons and vehicles to school police programs and “prison-like” school environments with metal detectors and random searches.

While school resource officers are the staff most likely to police students, teachers and other educators contribute to the problem with exclusionary discipline and referrals to school-based law enforcement, the task force report says. (A recent survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers found that more than a third of arrests that school resource officers made were referred to them by school staff.)

“The new policy statement clearly indicates that all educators, defined as every adult working in our schools, have a role in ending the criminalization and policing of students,” the report says. “To truly transform our schools into safe, just, and equitable learning communities, everyone in the school must take responsibility for ending subjective and biased enforcement of disciplinary/behavioral policies, as well as overreliance on the referrals of students to law enforcement.”

NEA plans efforts to protect schools from gun violence

In addition to updating the union’s approach to school police, delegates also attempted to tackle the spate of gun violence that has impacted schools and made educators increasingly fearful about their safety and that of their students. Even as NEA delegates conducted their business, there was a mass shooting at a July 4 parade 30 miles away.

Education Week’s tracker of school shootings shows there have been 27 this year—on track to outpace 2021.

Union delegates voted nearly unanimously—and without any debate—to coordinate a “unified response” to protect schools and communities from gun violence. The measure, which will cost nearly half a million dollars, was proposed by the NEA board of directors, the union’s top decision-making body.

The NEA’s call to action will “include a cross section convening of national, state, [and] local leaders and staff to create a unified, national set of strategies and tactics at every level of the association that keep the threat of gun violence to our students and educators at the forefront of policy discussions until we can ensure the safety of our communities.”

The NEA will support organizing efforts across the country, continue its federal advocacy work, and “hold accountable” elected officials and candidates running for office to “make sure they are willing to put an end to gun violence on school campuses and in our communities,” the measure says.

The measure also echoes the policy statement on safe schools, pledging to provide members with resources and information so they can access professional development on trauma-informed instruction, mental health supports, and engagement with parents and communities.

“We wanted to make sure that it was as inclusive as possible,” Pringle said. "[T]o address the epidemic of gun violence is going to take a holistic approach, but we [will] not back away from continuing to demand that this country take even more action on common sense, comprehensive solutions.”

Last month, President Joe Biden signed into law bipartisan gun legislation that boosts funding for school mental health and makes it easier for schools to bill Medicaid for student services, including mental health support. The new law also introduces enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21, provides federal support for state red flag laws, restricts gun purchases for people convicted of domestic violence, and introduces several measures aimed at reducing gun trafficking.

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