In 2013, a 17-year-old Texas student spent 52 days in a medically induced coma after police used a taser on him at school. The student fell to the ground, hitting his head on the floor, rendering him unconscious.
Two years later, in Columbia, S.C., a 16-year-old Black girl in Spring Valley High School was placed in a headlock, flipped over in her desk, dragged, and thrown across her classroom by a school police officer.
And in 2021, a school police officer in Long Beach, Calif., shot an 18-year-old while she was a passenger in a car driving away from a fight in the Millikan High School parking lot. She eventually died.
As the presence of police in schools continues to be debated, a new analysis of police assaults, including physical violence and sexual assault, from 2011 to 2021 adds to the mounting evidence that the presence of law enforcement negatively impacts students of color disproportionately.
Conducted by the Advancement Project, a nonprofit advocacy group working toward eliminating police from public schools, the report looked at 285 incidents of police assault to find troubling trends about the physical safety of Black and Latinx students in districts with police officers, or school resource officers working on school campuses. The incidents were drawn from published accounts in local, state, or national media, which means assaults not reported in the news did not make the list.
While school resource officers do stop some kinds of violence in schools, their presence also increases the disciplinary consequences to student behavior, such as suspensions or expulsion.
But the study does not clarify whether school resource officers—who are members of law enforcement specifically trained and assigned to schools—or other law enforcement figures or security guards were responsible for the assaults, said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO.
“I am all for standing up for good law enforcement officers, and I’m all for getting the bad ones out of what we’re doing,” Canady said. “It is critically important to understand, this is the most unique assignment any law enforcement officer can have. So they better be carefully selected and trained to do this job.”
Canady said there’s a critical difference in training, which leads to differences in how trained SROs approach and respond to students, because they are more likely to recognize typical adolescent behaviors, disabilities, and behavioral health issues than normal police officers.
The reaction to school resource officers, and police in general, after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was mixed. After the shooting, when some parents and lawmakers called for increased police presence in schools, most parents of Black students told Education Week that they did not feel safer because their children’s schools had school resource officers. For some, it was the contrary. The reaction from Uvalde parents themselves has not been uniform regarding school policing.
Black students are disproportionately assaulted by school police
More than 80 percent of students who have been assaulted by school police since 2011 have been Black.
Eleven percent of the assaults have been directed against Latinx students, and about 3 percent at white students, according to the Advancement Project’s analysis. In media reports where both race and gender were identified, Black boys accounted for almost 57 percent of all assaults from 2011 to 2021, and Black girls were the subject of more than 30 percent of all police assaults.
A 2020 study found that students were in general more likely to get arrested if school police were present, but the new study demonstrates that they’re also more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted by school police.
“If you go to a school that has been policed, you go to school where a police officer is present, you could be arrested for something that is typical adolescent behavior and something that should have been handled at a disciplinary level, simply because that officer was present,” Tyler Whittenberg, Deputy Director at Advancement Project. said.
“Behavior that is typical age-appropriate for an adolescent or a young teenager is now going to be viewed as a crime,” he added. “And then they’re getting Tased, they’re getting pepper sprayed, and they’re getting slammed to the ground.”
Students with disabilities, behavioral health issues, or mental health concerns also make up a significant portion of student victims. More than 14 percent of police assaults involved students with disabilities, and another 14 were against students with mental health concerns, the report says.
Assaults are more common in districts with diverse and low-income students
Schools with higher populations of Black and Latinx students, as well as schools with larger percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch experience more assaults by school police compared with their whiter, richer counterparts, the research found.
“[This] mirrors what we see in the community where Black and Latinx communities have for decades been the target of racist policing practices that have helped create our current status quo of mass incarceration.” Whittenberg said.
Assaults by school police were also more common in city and suburban schools. The majority of assaults on students—67 percent—occurred at the high school level, while 16 percent occurred in middle schools, and less than 5 percent were in elementary schools. However, there were 10 cases over a decade when the assault victim was a child between 4 and 8 years old.
The types of assault
The most frequent types of assault involved school police using more than one form of force. For example, the report cites an incident where a school resource officer threw things at a student, pushed the student against a whiteboard, slammed the student on desks, threw them to the ground, and shoved his knee into the student’s neck.
The most common method of assault is tasing, which school police used against students in 24 percent of the 285 cases.
Other tactics included pepper spray, which was involved in 10 percent of cases, and physical violence, such as slamming students against a floor or wall, choking them, or putting a knee on their neck or punching a student.
Sexual assault by school resource officers was the fourth most frequent type of assault. It occurred in 24 of the 285 incidents, according to the report.
More than 60 percent of police assaults on students resulted in serious injury to the student, many involving hospitalization, broken bones, or concussions, yet school resource officers are rarely penalized, the report says.
Since 2011, five students have been killed by school resource officers.
Assaults are not decreasing
When students returned to school after the pandemic, educators in surveys reported seeing a rise in traumatic behavioral issues among students However, until the first half of 2021, assaults by school resource officers seemed to be increasing.
From 2011 to 2014, there were about 10 assaults by school police in a year across the country. That number jumped to 23 in the 2014-15 school year. Between 2015 and 2020, the average increased to more than 33 assaults per year, and were projected to rise to about 45 for the 2021-22 school year, based on the first half of the year, when there were 20 instances, the report says.
“With all this data in front of you as a school board member, as an elected official, if you still choose to fund school police at this point, you must know that you are funding a racist policy that negatively impacts the health and safety of black and Latinx students in your district,” said Whittenberg.