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Trump, Biden Both Have Backed School Police. Will Protests Make That a Campaign Issue?

By Evie Blad — June 14, 2020 7 min read
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Will a growing movement to remove police from schools force President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden to confront their past positions on school resource officers during the 2020 presidential campaign?

The massive protests following the death in police custody of Minneapolis man George Floyd have already driven discussions of law enforcement and racial justice to the forefront of national political conversations.

But, amid all of that attention, quickly snowballing calls for “police-free schools” have stayed largely at the local level. That’s despite the fact that both Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Biden have championed school resource officers and played a role in the growing use of law enforcement in K-12 settings—Biden as an advocate of federal funding for SROs and Trump in a push for “hardening schools” following two large school shootings in 2018.

In response to Floyd’s death, Biden, who faced criticism in the Democratic primary for authoring the 1994 crime bill, called for “an era of action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes” in a Philadelphia speech. He pushed for a ban on chokeholds and the formation of a federal police oversight commission, but he rejected calls to “defund police.”

Trump, while condemning Floyd’s death, has called for “law and order” and voiced support for law enforcement. He’s reviewing police-related measures, White House officials have said, even as he criticizes Biden’s positions on the issue.

But neither campaign has commented on local efforts that started in Minneapolis June 2 when the school board there unanimously voted to end the district’s relationship with the city police department. Since then, districts from Portland, Ore., to East Lansing, Mich., have ended school police contracts. Citing disproportionate rates of police interactions with black students, activists and teachers’ unions in at least a dozen other cities have called on their leaders to shift funds spent on law enforcement to personnel like school counselors and student support staff.

“Often what you’ll hear from [school resource officers] is, ‘You know, I’m kind of like a social worker,’” said Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that has questioned the effectiveness of school police. “My response to that is, ‘That’s great. What’s your degree in?’ I’d rather hire a social worker who has that training, is less expensive than a law enforcement officer, and I’m less likely to get the negative consequences of that.”

Meanwhile, mayors and superintendents in Democratically controlled cities like Chicago, the District of Columbia, and New York have rejected those calls, insisting that officers are necessary for student safety.

“It’s going to vary by community,” Schindler said. “How this plays out at the national level remains to be seen.”

Biden and School Police

Throughout his long career as a U.S. senator from Delaware, Biden was a big supporter of school resource officers as part of a community policing strategy.

And bills he supported, sponsored, and authored provided federal funding to help local agencies hire officers in cooperation with school districts, contributing to a multidecade growth of police in schools. By the 2017-18 school year, 58 percent of American schools reported having a sworn law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week.

Among its provisions, the 1994 crime bill—written with heavy input from police groups and formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, providing federal grant funding for 100,000 local police positions, including school resource officers. Biden continued to push for funding for COPS grants, until he took office as vice president in 2009.

Biden’s presidential 2020 platform includes a pledge to “reinvigorate the COPS program with a $300 million investment.”

Civil rights groups have blamed the growth in school police, coupled the growth of zero-tolerance policies, with overly punitive school discipline.

Those groups pushed Biden not to encourage school policing when, after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama put him in charge of the administration’s school safety and gun control efforts.

“We’ve found that those school resource officers were of value in many schools,” Biden said in a 2013 town hall. “We haven’t been funding them of late. We think they should be funded.”

The administration’s response to the Newtown shooting included a plan to hire school resource officers “who not only enforce the law but act as teachers and mentors.” It also created a Comprehensive School Safety Program that provided grants for schools and researchers to pilot and evaluate new models for helping students feel safe and supported, including new models of school policing.

The Biden campaign did not respond to questions about his positions on school resource officers.

Trump’s Position on School Police

Some of Trump’s most significant action on school policing has been undoing policy changes made by the Obama administration.

Obama-era guidance, issued by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education in 2014, included a call for schools to ensure that they do not involve law enforcement in routine disciplinary issues. It also put schools on notice that they may be in violation of civil rights laws if their disciplinary policies led to disparately high discipline rates for students of color, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

After a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., victims’ families blamed that guidance and a diversionary program meant to reduce school arrests in Broward County Schools. They said their children’s high school failed to adequately intervene in the behavior of a former student who carried out the attack.

At the recommendations of a federal school safety commission chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration later rescinded that guidance.

After the shooting, the Trump administration prioritized school resource officer positions when selecting COPS grant recipients.

After Parkland families also faulted a school resource officer, who failed to enter the building to confront the gunman, Trump also advocated for arming teachers.

“These teachers love their students, and these teachers are talented with weaponry and with guns,” Trump told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I’d rather have somebody that loves their students and wants to protect their students than somebody standing outside who doesn’t know the students,” he said, seeming to criticize the officer.

In 2017, Trump also rescinded an Obama-era executive order that placed limits on a federal program that sends surplus military equipment to local law enforcement. That order included restrictions on law enforcement agencies operated by K-12 school districts, which had used the program to obtain items like grenade launchers, tactical gear, and armored vehicles.

Debate Continues

Critics of school police say their efforts have seen more progress in the last two weeks than they had in years, but that doesn’t mean the issue will become significant in national politics, or in the presidential campaigns.

For one thing, not everyone agrees with the push. While Trump hasn’t said anything about the local campaigns for schools to sever ties with law enforcement, some allies have criticized them.

And some school safety consultants have called on schools to improve their agreements with school police, rather than eliminating them entirely.

“The context in which these decisions are being made— a highly politicized, socially and racially charged context — reeks of political decision-making under pressure,” wrote Kenneth Trump, a school safety consultant who is not related to the president. “This is not decision-making driven by school safety best practices.”

It’s unclear how long newly energized protesters will assert their demands. And public opinion on school police can move like a pendulum, Schindler said.

Federal data show that school violence is statistically rare. But after school shootings, public polls often show increased concerns about student safety and increased demand for security measures, including officers.

“If we had a big school shooting in the near future, you could see things shift,” Schindler said.

Photo: Jaylen Lee, 4, rides his scooter and looks at signs hanging on a fence near the White House June 9 after days of protests over the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, a black man. --AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin