Students in K-12 public schools are under tremendous stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions on households, and even before a public health and economic crisis, 77% of school-aged girls reported that they wanted access to crisis counselors. Instead, school districts and states poured massive resources into police officers in schools, perpetuating the criminalization of students. In the wake of the protests against police brutality across the United States and the entire world following George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s senseless murders, one of the most important conversations rising from this dire situation is around School Resource Officers (“SROs”) and their increasingly dangerous and costly presence in schools. These nationwide conversations over race relations have led to several victories in removing school police in Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, and other school districts.
Increasingly, school-based police intervene in situations previously handled by administrators, guidance counselors, or school security guards. School police took prominence in national conversations following the Parkland shooting and became particularly common in states like Florida, despite criticism of their effectiveness and overwhelming evidence that school counselors are more effective at mitigating violence before it occurs.
When I was a public-school teacher in Miami, the term “School Resource Officers” fooled me into believing that officers would be a helpful authority figure and engage in positive interactions with students; this didn’t happen. I had several students in regular contact with school police, get in trouble for smoking vape pens or marijuana on campus, or repeatedly skipping. These should not require involvement of a school police officer. Interacting with a police officer is frightening and potentially traumatic for a person of any age, but certainly for a young person without their parent present. Studies show that schools have shifted towards using school police rather than administrators, counselors, or staff to deal with challenging student behaviors, which has disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous children, and has “increasingly criminalized traditional school disciplinary issues and exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Over-policing Black and Indigenous people starts at a young age, oftentimes in middle or high school—though there have been recent news stories of Black girls as young as six being detained by school police. The school-to-prison pipeline continues to thrive across the country because of school police programs, particularly in schools with high numbers of Black, Indigenous, and students of color. In my experience as a teacher, I saw frequent educational disruptions to students who came in repeated contact with the school police, even when their punishment was a suspension instead of an arrest. Instead of dealing with a school police officer and missing class, these students should’ve been connected with counselors, who could more appropriately address their behavior and issues they’re dealing with using methods like mindfulness or meditation practices, or de-escalation techniques for confrontation. These practices would likely have long-lasting, positive impact. Following established restorative justice practices address the root of the child’s issues and give a child healthy methods of dealing with difficult emotions, ensuring that they are much more likely to have a successful and positive school experience and form a community with their teachers, administration, and peers.
School police aren’t just a problem for students who have faced discipline. There have been reported instances of sexual assault between students that go unreported by school police, where oftentimes the school delegates its duty to investigate Title IX claims to school police without proper Title IX training. What’s more egregious is the growing list of school police accused of sexual assault or sexual misconduct by girls across the country. Too often, school police are in positions of power and prey on and harass students—particularly Black and brown students—who are too young or vulnerable to understand the implications of power imbalances between the police and the student, or too afraid to speak out against their perpetrator for fear of not being believed.
Between COVID-19 ravaging Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities and the protests in support of Black lives, students in these communities have enough stress on their plates without needing to worry about police in schools instead of on their education. In fact, students have been pushing to get cops out of their schools. As schools consider reopening, the time is ripe to divest in school police programs in favor of mental health funding to truly help students succeed long-term.