It is an understatement to say that recently there has been a lot of attention paid to the complicated relationship between communities of color and law enforcement and the school to prison pipeline. Progressives and liberals have made public calls against the militarization of police and for more police accountability, and rightly so. Recently, a video showing a Baltimore school police officer violently beating two students intensified this conversation in Maryland. We should definitely be talking about the role of police in our schools, and we need to ensure that there is proper oversight and accountability. Abuses of authority erode both public safety and trust in the government, and such abuses won’t go away without a serious conversation about reform. But instead of emphasizing resources, training, and accountability to deal with these very serious problems, lawmakers are turning school police officers into targets.
Across the country, a number of op-eds have examined the role of gun-carrying school police officers, and some interest groups are advocating that in the name of student safety, guns should be removed from school grounds. Some lawmakers, including Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson, are raising questions about whether school police forces are the best way for schools to ensure student safety. While it’s appropriate to continually examine whether our departments are serving students in the best possible way, the move to disarm school police is short-sighted and misinterprets the relationship school police officers have with students and the crucial role the officers play in keeping our students safe.
Last week, the Maryland General Assembly killed a bill that would have allowed officers to carry their weapons in school. The bill was a bit of an odd political move; school police have been carrying guns in schools for as long as anyone can remember. In a recent Baltimore Sun article, lawmakers questioned whether the force was even necessary, and City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton did not initially comment in defense of school police, although he did order an audit of the force. These actions send a mixed message about Thornton’s support because it was his administration that requested that the assembly authorize school police to carry weapons in the first place. Perhaps he didn’t want to weigh in on an ongoing political debate, but his silence was nonetheless disappointing. School police officers are his department, under his command, and they deserve the support of their leader in public, not just behind the scenes with lawmakers. Public support from the CEO is especially important because the main opponents of the bill to arm officers were Baltimore City parents and students, who may not fully realize the many crises that school police keep at bay. By ordering an audit and not publicly noting his officers’ service and commitment, Thornton is implicitly encouraging a conversation that could diminish his officers’ capacity to ensure the public safety of students.
We should never forget that school police officers are trained to properly use their weapons in environments with children. I teach in a particularly dangerous city where the influence of gangs, drugs, and poverty can wreak havoc on the safe spaces we want for our students. It’s not unusual in Baltimore for adults to come into a school wanting fight other parents, staff members, and tragically, even students. School police officers are our resources when there’s an emergency. Whether that crisis is a disruptive student who won’t leave a classmate alone or a fight in the hallway, school police are the first people there, diffusing the situation when it is at its most intense.
School police officer training is specialized, and it prepares officers to interact with students not just as law enforcement, but as educators and informal counselors. School police officers are mentors and role models for our kids. They build relationships with students and teach them the important lesson that police aren’t the bad guys, but instead exist in order to help keep them safe. Community-police relationships are crucial to public safety, and many people form their view of law enforcement based on early experiences with school resource officers. It is also worth noting that in Baltimore, our school police officers are overwhelmingly black and male. In my years working in schools, I’ve heard countless students openly refer to school police officers as their father figures. Given how much time educators spend considering the unique challenges of young African American men, and the dearth of black male educators, why would we undercut these important members of our school community?
I’m glad we are talking about race, violence, and justice because the fact that we’re having a conversation at all is itself a sign of progress. In any tough dialogue, we don’t immediately get to the right answers. In my view, we are pointing fingers at the wrong people when we suggest that school police are a danger to our kids.
The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.