Over the past several years, I have become an unapologetic advocate for police reform. Several months ago, a group of high school activists in Lexington, Ky., rallying for Counselors Over Cops reached out to me to share my own experiences in law enforcement. When I connected with the activists from Counselors Over Cops online, I immediately wanted to get involved because of my past experience working first as a teacher and then as a police officer.
When I was a Metropolitan police department officer in the nation’s capital, I had an interaction that haunts me to this day. While driving through the city, my partner and I saw a day-care class out for recess. We pulled our cruiser alongside the playground, and the 30 or so young Black children from the day care became ecstatic when the lights on the cruiser began to flash. As we stepped outside to spend time with the kids, several were struck by the uniform and the badge.
Then, when I showed my flashlight to one of the boys, I saw a little girl crying in fear. As I walked over to her, her terror increased. I bent down to eye level and asked her what was wrong. “The police came one night and took my daddy!” she said.
I hugged her and told her, ashamed, “All police aren’t the same.” In reality, I knew it didn’t matter what an individual officer does. As long as the uniform has caused heartache to communities all across the nation, the trauma will remain.
When talking about policing in schools, school resource officers, or SROs, usually become the focus of the conversation instead of the youth. SROs have been a part of American public schools since the 1950s. Initially, they were used to build bonds between the police and youth, but, as time went on, their presence in schools has been more harmful than helpful.
The justification for the existence of school resource officers usually goes a little like this:
1. “SROs make the school safer.” This is not entirely true. A 2018 report by The Washington Post illustrated that targeted shootings are by far the most common type of school shooting, usually occurring in seconds and leaving little time for any adult intervention. School resource officers were also present in 5 out of the nation’s 6 most deadly school shootings. And while there is anecdotal evidence of shooters being deterred by officers on campus, these are matched with stories of unnecessary student deaths that result from having an armed officer on campus. A review of the research also shows there is insufficient evidence that efforts to make schools more resistant to gun attacks, including hiring SROs, has effectively lowered rates of gun violence.
2. “SROs are counselors and mentors to the students.” We cannot ignore the destruction and suffering law enforcement has caused communities. Almost three generations have been torn from their communities since the boom in overpolicing in the 1970s. Because of the war on drugs and other such programs, thousands of potential community mentors were taken from their homes. Instead of concentrating on police as mentors, we should be working toward ensuring community members are able to be community leaders.
3. “SROs work closely with teachers and education staff to ensure the optimal learning environment.” If the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million education professionals, is pleading with government officials to adopt anti-racist practices and remove police from schools, why aren’t we listening?
At least two-thirds of American high school students attend a school where a police officer is present. The number is higher when it comes to students of color. The school-to-prison pipeline is perpetuated in these schools because teachers and administrators are more likely to refer children to law enforcement for lessseriousmisbehaviors. This is especially true for Black students, who are more likely to be arrested than white students at schools with officers present.
The trauma of police interaction also does not just end when kids leave school; the trauma goes home with them as well.
A 2020 CNN report that included interviews with five youth found that the students reported the presence of SROs in their school made them feel unsafe, led to incidents of excessive force from the SROs, and were less desirable than having school counselors instead. The trauma of police interaction also does not just end when kids leave school; the trauma goes home with them as well. Children throughout the country have experienced negative interactions with law enforcement. Having police in schools only exacerbates this. We cannot ignore it.
Across the nation, essential advocacy has been initiated for the fight for our kids’ well-being. At the federal level, the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act of 2021, which was introduced in both the House and Senate in June of last year, could be a step in the right direction. If passed, the law would prohibit federal funds from being used to hire or maintain police officers in schools and instead put the resources into mental health and trauma-informed services. The District of ColumbiaPoliceReform Commissionreport recommends the interjection of violence interrupters and restorative-justice practitioners to reduce potential violence on educational campuses.
Nationally, nearly 50 school districts in jurisdictions around the country, including in Oakland, Calif.; Minneapolis; and Arlington, Va., have safely removed police officers from their campuses since March 2020. More districts should follow their lead. Devoting more resources toward mental health and counseling services will lead us to an educational space free of criminalization.
Let’s continue this momentum and do what is best for the youth. Let’s save our children from the pepper spray, the body slams, and the tasers. Let’s keep police out of schools.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Former Cop’s Case For Police-Free Schools