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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Why Are We Criminalizing Black Students?

By Tyrone C. Howard — March 21, 2017 5 min read
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A recent special report in Education Week revealed serious concerns about the prevalence of school resource officers at elementary and secondary schools across the nation (“Policing America’s Schools: An Education Week Analysis,” Jan. 25, 2017). On the surface, the presence of law-enforcement personnel would seem to be a good step in helping to create and sustain safe learning environments for students and school personnel. However, a deeper look at the presence of SROs on school campuses raises serious concerns that reflect a pattern of racial inequities about who is policed, who is profiled, and who is punished.

Consider the fact that black students are most likely to be punished despite often being one of the smallest populations in many school districts across the country. Data shown in Education Week reveal that black males are three times more likely to be arrested at schools than their white male peers. Black girls do not fare much better: They are arrested 1.5 times more than their white male peers. It is not the sheer number of arrests that is so disturbing, but the disproportionality: Of the schools that referred students to law enforcement, 17 percent of their enrollments were black, yet 26 percent of all students referred to law enforcement were black. Across a majority of states, no other group has such a high arrest-to-enrollment ratio.

Why Are We Criminalizing Black Students? School resource officers are making racial disparities in discipline worse, not better, writes UCLA professor Tyrone C. Howard.

The first reaction for some when seeing disproportionality data is to conclude that SROs are on campuses where violent acts are most likely to occur. The presence of school resource officers is most prevalent at schools with black students, as well as low-income and racially segregated schools, where children of color are most likely to attend. This should trouble educators. In truth, incidents of violence are not higher where black students attend school, and this raises serious concerns about how schools may be contributing to damaging racial profiles of particular students.

The irony of school discipline is that the increased presence of SROs is a direct result of the “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies of the early 2000s. Such policies emerged largely as a result of mass shootings on school campuses. However, over the past two decades, a majority of mass school shootings have been in largely white, middle-class, rural, or suburban communities. They were also overwhelmingly perpetrated by white males. Consider Littleton, Colo.; Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Newtown, Conn.

The presence of resource officers seems to create a campus environment in which a school looks more like a police headquarters than a community of learning. And those officers are given the responsibility of interacting with students, typically without having any training on youth development, theories of learning, student disabilities, and overall child behavior.

To underscore the severity of the problem of SRO presence on campuses, consider that the U.S. Department of Education estimates that there are close to 31,000 resource officers or other law-enforcement officers stationed in the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools. The Education Department states that another 13,000 sworn law-enforcement officers are spending at least part of their time at schools. On some campuses, the number of officers is greater than that of school psychologists, nurses, psychiatric social workers, and learning specialists combined. It prompts the question: What is the priority? Is it to police children or to support them?

What message does this tendency send to other students about black students?"

Instead of punishing students, schools might be better served allocating limited resources to provide additional supports for mental-health services and programs instead of SROs. Much of what is seen from students who engage in conflict is a need for intervention for depression, anxiety, bipolar issues, or untreated trauma. More schools are adopting restorative-justice practices, which in some cases are showing positive outcomes. More resources should be devoted to such programs that seek to help and heal students as opposed to criminalizing them.

Finally, a sustained focus on mental-health supports and a focus on mindfulness would take significant steps toward ameliorating the chronic gaps in school outcomes that have plagued low-income students and children of color. Moreover, there is a need for schools to have an explicit focus on creating a school culture which neither criminalizes students nor creates an unfair racial climate. Other steps that could make a difference in changing these outcomes, for example:

• Eliminate the criminalization of low-level behaviors that pose no public-safety threat to students, teachers, or staff, such as “willful defiance,” dress-code violations, and talking back to teachers. Also, reduce the ability of school personnel to refer student-behavior cases to juvenile court for minor offenses.

• Eradicate zero-tolerance policies and develop more culturally sustaining and appropriate pedagogies centered on student communication and learning.

• Create more trauma-sensitive schools and classrooms, which identify the roots of student behavior and provide the appropriate resources for them and families.

• Ensure that suspensions, expulsions, and arrests can be used only when immediate safety threats exist and no other interventions are available.

• Provide more sustained training for school personnel and SROs on unconscious bias and racial microaggressions. In some cases, white children and children of color engage in similar types of behavior in schools, yet the responses and punishments can differ notably. Unconscious attitudes and beliefs may explain much of the racial disproportionality of school arrests.

Why do schools criminalize black students? What message does this tendency send to other students about black students? And, more importantly, what is the message that black children take away from continually being depicted as problem children? To upend the inequities, students, school leaders, and classroom teachers must discuss the data around discipline, talk openly about race, and recognize how they could be contributing to a hostile learning environment for black children. It is time for schools to be accountable to the students they serve.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2017 edition of Education Week as Why Are We Criminalizing Black Students?

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