School Climate & Safety Commentary

We Are Spending Millions to Put More Cops in Schools. What Could Go Wrong?

By Lisa Thurau & Johanna Wald — March 12, 2019 5 min read

Children and their parents have long felt anxious about school. This year, however, many leave home each morning suffering from an acute fear unknown before 1999: that their school will be the site of another mass shooting. Since last year’s deadly school shootings, parents, psychologists, and educators report that children are suffering from PTSD and panic attacks that may be adversely affecting their brain development.

Given these disturbing trends, it is understandable that community, police, and school leaders feel intense pressure to demonstrate they are taking tangible measures to keep children safe. The most visible way to do so, unfortunately, is also the least effective, most expensive, and most harmful to vulnerable students. Beefing up the presence of police officers on school grounds is a tempting but wrongheaded approach.

Problems caused by the haphazard, reactive way in which police have been thrown into schools start at the most basic level."

Although there is no convincing evidence that police presence in schools reduces the risk of the violence parents and children most fear, officials have succumbed to the public pressure, at great expense. In just the first six months after last year’s deadly Parkland shooting, state legislatures in 26 states allocated nearly $950 million for security upgrades and school resource officers. One Florida county voted to nearly triple the number of school resource officers, or SROs, at an additional cost of almost $4 million.

We are not going to engage here in a much-needed debate over whether police should be in schools. Our concerns are more immediate and practical. Cops are in schools in growing numbers, but in our experience as youth advocates, they are mostly untrained to work with youth, do not understand how to adjust to educational environments, receive almost no meaningful oversight, and lack even rudimentary policies to guide their decision-making. Without these minimal requirements, their presence is certain to increase, not reduce, the risk that children of color, children with disabilities, and other vulnerable children will be further harmed, not protected.

Problems caused by the haphazard, reactive way in which police have been thrown into schools start at the most basic level. The role or purpose of school resource officers is frequently unclear. When we interviewed SROs in 16 Massachusetts school districts in 2010, we found 16 different ways districts hire, train, and manage the position. Many school resource officers told us that, in the absence of clear direction, they “made it up” as they went along. One viewed his role as primarily being an informal counselor to students, another as an additional “set of hands” for school administrators, and a third as a strict enforcer of the rules.

Given the enormous amount of discretion built into the job, the decision to arrest a student seemed almost arbitrary at times. One officer routinely arrested students caught fighting, another sent them to the principal, and still another marched the students back into class. One officer told us that he arrested an 11-year-old who kept banging the front door because “What else was there for me to do? He was driving the assistant principal berserk.” In another school, an SRO handcuffed a 7-year-old to make him stop crying.

We found that very few officers received specialized training in adolescent psychology, de-escalation strategies, or how to align policing with an educational mission. They were rarely informed about special programs being implemented in the school. For instance, one SRO was unaware that his high school had adopted a “trauma informed” approach to school discipline. This knowledge gap meant that his responses to student behavior often conflicted with broader school goals.

While the National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that officers complete a 40-hour course that includes emergency plans for schools, discussion of SRO roles, de-escalation techniques, and study of the adolescent brain, this is not mandatory. Only three states have enacted laws (Colorado, Massachusetts, and Texas) requiring officers be trained before being deployed to public schools.

This situation becomes more dangerous when we consider that, according to the federal Indicators of School Crime and Safety for 2017, almost half of secondary schools have security staff armed with Tasers or other conducted electrical weapons. As a result, we are seeing incidents of inappropriate use of these stun guns on students by police. Two examples, of many, stand out. In Texas, a 17-year-old boy fell forward after being Tased by an SRO. The boy was filmed breaking up a fight. He is now permanently brain damaged. In Ohio, a student was hospitalized after a school police officer accidentally Tased her.

A new report from the ACLU found that 1.7 million students attend schools with police, but no counselors. That’s a frightening statistic, given what we know about high arrest rates for minor school offenses, disproportionate targeting of students of color and students with disabilities for the harshest punishments, and the long-term harm to young people who become involved with the justice system.

At the very least, these police officers need to be versed in education law, de-escalation strategies, adolescent psychology, and behavioral effects of trauma, violence, and poverty. They should know what other services and supports in the community are available—for example, mental health counselors, social workers, family crisis—to help struggling students. Schools also must do a better job of informing teachers if and when they are allowed to call an SRO to respond. They must also, at a minimum, explain to parents how SROs interact with their children, and the legal consequences of their children’s behaviors.

In the not-so-distant future, we hope that officials will reverse investment priorities that favor police over mental health services, counselors, and professional development for teachers. But it’s already deep into the school year, and we have to move quickly to protect the most vulnerable children. Training, standards and oversight are the very least that we must demand from, and for, law enforcement officers who are charged with serving what we often forget is our nation’s most precious resource: our children.

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