After 19 students and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, schools across the country sent out condolences and messages about safety measures they were taking in response to the shooting.
One measure was adding police to school buildings in the days following the shooting, which some school leaders said would bolster safety. But to some parents of color, inviting law enforcement into school buildings as a response to a shooting isn’t comforting, it’s concerning.
Four Black parents told Education Week that the presence of police in schools concerned them because they feared their kids would be at the very least, stressed out and anxious around police or, in the worst case scenario, criminalized at school. However, two Latino parents offered a different take on beefing up the police presence at school. They said that they believed the officers would add to overall student safety, and they did not worry about their children being targeted or profiled by police.
All the parents, however, agreed on one point: More mental health supports for students would benefit their kids and overall be effective in helping to prevent violence at school.
“I think the biggest problem with having police in schools is that it’s reactionary,” said Shane Paul Neil, a Black parent of a 9-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl from Montclair, N.J.
A day after the Uvalde shooting, he found out on social media that Gov. Phil Murphy had directed law enforcement to increase the police presence in all New Jersey schools.
“So the idea of police being there, it’s really to give a false sense of security to those who feel like it is doing anything for them,” Neil said.
Khulia Pringle, a Black parent in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area of Minnesota, works with several national organizations including Dignity in Schools to get rid of police in schools. A former teacher and current activist, she has been advocating for the removal of SROs from Minneapolis and St. Paul schools (which the districts did in 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd in that community unleashed protests across the country).
“Black and brown parents for years have been asking for police-free schools, and when we speak our voices are unheard,” she said. “But when other folks speak their voices are heard and their voices are elevated, and the consequences are these knee-jerk reactionary policies that ultimately affect folks that are already oppressed.”
Parents have questions about effectiveness
Whether adding police officers to schools that don’t currently have them, or increasing the numbers of them in schools that do can prevent shootings is unclear. In Uvalde, police officers were on campus when the gunman killed 21 people inside two classrooms. In spite of audible gunshots and several 911 calls, the gunman spent more than an hour inside the school while police stayed outside the room where he was barricaded, according to the New York Times.
In light of the Uvalde shooting, several national organizations working to remove police from public schools held a press conference this week to discuss the mounting evidence that for students of color in particular, the concerns that come with having police in the schools outweigh any benefits.
“School police do not keep students safe. They do not prevent or end school based shootings,” said Ashley Sawyer, senior staff attorney at Advancement Project, a national civil-rights organization, at the press conference.
“We cannot continue to go back to the knee-jerk reactionary response of more policing. So we have to come back to what works,” she continued. “And we know that that is building a positive school climate and investing robustly in the types of supports that young people need in order to feel safe, whole, affirmed and supported in their school environment.”
The Uvalde shooting is not the first time delayed action by law enforcement has resulted in failure to stop an attacker from killing people in a school building. NPR reported that the response of the Uvalde police is reminiscent of that of law enforcement during prior mass shootings, including the shootings in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.
The larger conversation about the role of school resource officers—police officers assigned to schools—and whether they add to school safety has also been much debated across the country since George Floyd’s death in 2020. Two studies conducted last year by researchers at Hamline University and Metropolitan State University in Minnesota and the University at Albany found that school resource officers did not necessarily prevent school shootings. The University at Albany study found that while SROs did help in effectively reducing certain kinds of violence, their presence in schools also intensified suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students and that Black students were more than twice as likely to face these forms of discipline as than white students.
“If I wasn’t a mother of color, and my children didn’t have the stigma of being Black and they were the majority, I don’t think [police in schools] would make me uncomfortable,” said Passious Green, a Black parent from Virginia Beach, Va. “Because I would know that my children are not going to be walking around with a target on their back from the police on top of having to deal with a possible school shooting.”
Paul Neil, who grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City and went to a high school with metal detectors and police, found those safety measures to be ineffective in his personal experience.
“Black people as a whole, we try to not interact with police unless we absolutely have to and to be in a space like a school, it becomes unavoidable that you’re going to have to interact with them to some degree,” he said. “So that becomes the ultimate worry where a referral could become an arrest that goes on their record and that becomes a thing that they have to deal with, when they’re just trying to go to school.”
Police ‘don’t make Black and brown children feel safe’
Pringle, the parent and activist from Minnesota, said adding police to schools in response to a shooting is a reaction meant to pacify parents who are not worried about racial profiling by police. She said she has heard from parents all over the country who have expressed concerns about them or their kids being profiled because of their race or immigration status. Pringle believes there is no need for school resource officers or any kind of law enforcement to be present on school campuses in general.
“Cops have no business in schools. They’re part of the school-to-prison pipeline when it comes to Black and brown children. They don’t make Black and brown children feel safe,” she said. “A lot of the time, Black and brown children are criminalized for developmentally appropriate things, things that the school can handle.”
Schools should instead turn to their communities and partner with local organizations to provide culturally responsive services and give students more of a voice and solicit their opinions on school safety, Pringle said.
According to Yahaira Lopez, a Black and Latino parent from Boston with a special needs child, increasing police presence in schools as a response to a shooting isn’t appropriate. But removing them entirely from schools brings up more questions than it resolves, she said, because she is unclear on what a replacement security measure would entail.
“We don’t want to be over-policed, we don’t want the police targeting our Black and brown kids and locking them up,” she said. “But what is the alternative? It’s a conversation that we need to have as parents and community leaders, and say, what is the solution?”
According to Lopez, investing in mental health supports and guidance counselors is one answer, but she wonders how much can be expected of those professionals in terms of identifying and preventing potentially dangerous student behaviors and what are the additional burdens teachers will have to face in the absence of school resource officers. These are critical questions that need to be addressed before removing police from schools entirely, she said.
‘I just want my kids in a safe place’
To some other parents of color, however, police are still responsible for and capable of protecting their children at school. Antonia Chávez, a parent in Tulsa, Okla., speaking through a translator, said she believes school systems should increase police presence after a shooting because she believes law enforcement officials are better equipped than school employees to respond to emergency situations, such as a school shooting.
A few months ago, her 9th grade son’s classmate pulled out a switchblade knife and held it to her son’s stomach at school, she said. Although no one was hurt, the incident made Chavez want more security in and around her son’s school.
In theory, police should be able to keep violence in schools in check compared with a security guard, teacher, or parent because they are better trained and prepared for these situations, Lopez said. What happened in Uvalde was more of a situational failure than a systemic one, she believes.
“We should feel frustrated, angry, and powerless because all those personnel were outside and waited when they could have done something to avoid more death or maybe none of them could have died,” she said through an interpreter.
“I want more security but I understand that the police can’t do much and they didn’t do much from outside,” she added. “Perhaps something could have been done from the inside.”
Carlos Rivera, a Latino parent from Columbus, Ohio, said he plans to go to his local school board meeting next year, when his kids will start middle school in Franklin County, to ask for increased police presence in schools, as well as more training for police officers to handle classroom conflict and other issues that commonly arise at schools, such as fights between students.
Rivera said he is not worried that his kids will be discriminated against or face any negative impacts by police presence on campus. “I think, as long as the police have a commitment with the community, I don’t think there is any space for discrimination,” he said. “I just want my kids in a safe place, I think real police, who believe in security, will protect anybody. It doesn’t matter the race or where they come from.”