Predominantly Black and Latino schools are more likely to have on-site law enforcement than those with largely white enrollment, a new analysis finds.
And that disparity holds true in both high- and low-poverty schools, says the report, released by the Urban Institute April 6.
The findings come as federal lawmakers and the Tennessee legislature debate boosting funding for school police and armed security officers after six people died in a March 27 shooting at The Covenant School, a church-run Nashville elementary school.
But civil rights and student groups have long cautioned that the presence of law enforcement in schools can lead to the criminalization of routine disciplinary issues, particularly when their day-to-day roles are not carefully defined.
Here’s what you need to know.
Predominantly white schools are less likely to have school police
Predominantly Black or Latino schools—those where Black or Latino students make up at least 80 percent of enrollment—are more likely to have officers on site.
The authors of the analysis combined data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017-18 federal Civil Rights Data Collection—the most recent data available on school policing—with a separate school-level poverty estimate model developed by Urban Institute researchers. They defined “higher income” schools as those with poverty estimates above the overall national median rate, and “lower income” schools as those with estimates below the median.
What they found:
- Among predominantly Black schools, 36 percent defined as lower income had a school resource officer, compared to 37 percent of those defined as higher income.
- Among predominantly Latino schools, 34 percent of lower-income schools had a school resource officer, compared to 36 percent of higher-income schools.
- Among predominantly white schools, 5 percent of lower-income schools had an SRO, compared to 11 percent of higher-income schools.
“Other factors could explain differences in the presence of SROs, including urbanicity, state policy, and income differences beyond the above-and-below-median measure we use,” the analysis says. “But these differences are unlikely to explain the starkly unequal exposure that Black and Latinx students have to SROs. Exposure is particularly troubling for those attending low-income schools, which often have fewer resources and higher discipline rates.”
Calls for increased school policing
Calls for increased school policing have increased following the Nashville school shooting.
In Tennessee, lawmakers are considering Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to provide $140 million in grants to place SROs in every public school in the state.
Tennessee’s U.S. Senators, Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, introduced federal legislation to establish a $900 million grant program for both public and private schools to hire veterans and former law enforcement officers to work as “school safety officers.” The funding could also be used to hire off-duty law enforcement officers, or for physical security measures.
Concerns about school officers’ role in student discipline.
Critics of school police as well as some researchers have questioned whether an increase in on-site officers really makes students safer. Those concerns took on new weight after numerous law enforcement agencies took an hour to confront a school shooter in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022.
In recent years, student activists have called for removing police from schools or for limiting their roles in student discipline through carefully crafted agreements with districts.
Those efforts saw momentum during widespread racial justice protests following the 2020 Minneapolis, Minn., police killing of George Floyd.
Between May 2020 and June 2022, at least 50 school districts ended their school policing programs or cut their budgets, according to an EdWeek tracker. As of last June, at least eight districts had reversed course and brought them back.
Most recently, leaders of the Denver school district, which removed school police in 2020, committed to reversing course after a 17-year-old student shot and injured two administrators March 22 as they were searching him for weapons as part of an individual “safety plan.”