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The Parkland shooting fueled calls for more school police. Civil rights groups want them removed.

A new report argues that school policing is a racial justice issue.

A school resource officer stands outside the main office as students exit South Portland High School March 2, 2018.
A school resource officer stands outside the main office as students exit South Portland High School on March 2, 2018.
Carl Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Seven months ago, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparked an intense debate about how to stop school shootings and make schools safer. One proposal: more police in schools.

One month after the shooting, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill dedicating $400 million to a number of school security measures, including an increase in the number of school resource officers. The Trump administration called for more armed police officers in schools and also floated the idea of arming teachers, concerning those who believe that more police in schools could create problems for students of color.

Now two civil rights groups say that if school safety is truly a concern, police should be removed from schools entirely.

A new joint report titled “We Came to Learn: A Call to Action for Police-Free Schools,” by the Advancement Project and the Alliance for Educational Justice, aims to tell a more comprehensive story of policing in America’s schools and how it affects students of color, particularly those from predominantly black communities. It argues that in the nearly two decades since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, calls to increase school safety have resulted in an increasingly punitive system of school discipline aimed at students of color, and that school policing has failed to make students of color safer.

“Police in schools is an issue of American racial disparity that requires deep structural change,” the report authors note.

There is a considerable body of research showing that black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended, arrested, and disciplined in school. Advocates argue that adding more police to this dynamic will only make things more difficult for students from marginalized groups — those from black and Latino communities, with LGBTQ identities, and with disabilities — who are already more likely to interact with police in their daily lives.

The report “serves as a warning in the post-Parkland moment about what happens in black and brown schools when we respond [to tragedy] with overpolicing and a hardening of schools,” says Jonathan Stith, the national director for the Alliance for Educational Justice. “It does not create safety for black and brown students.”

School policing has increased considerably in recent decades

Police presence in schools dates back to the 1950s, as districts introduced police with the goal of improving relationships between law enforcement and young people. But according to the report, this was not the case in many schools with predominantly black student bodies, where later, students activists of the civil rights era clashed with police officers.

What was initially a gradual increase in school policing — a category that now includes officers stationed full time or part time in schools — accelerated in the wake of high-profile violence. After the Columbine shooting, a fear of guns in schools led to the increased use of school resource officers and the introduction of “zero tolerance” school discipline.

The federal government promoted the spread of more aggressive school policing; the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), for example, established a grant awarding more than $750 million to schools to beef up policing from 1999 to 2005, with more than 6,500 new school officers. Years later, a mix of roughly 44,000 school resource officers and other law enforcement were in schools at least once a week during the 2013-’14 school year, according to a 2015 report from the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Education.

Advancement Project/Alliance for Educational Justice

Schools with higher numbers of black and Latino students are more likely to have police, We Came to Learn reports. This became even more noticeable after a wave of school safety measures spread after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Research by Jason Nance, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, has found that these measures, which included metal detectors, security cameras, and more school police, were more likely to be introduced in schools with high numbers of nonwhite students.

Nance concluded that based on a review of federal data, “schools with higher concentrations of minority students are more inclined to rely on heavy-handed measures to maintain order than other schools facing similar crime and discipline issues.” That difference fits into a larger set of disparities that affect students of color.

In the 2011-’12 school year, black students were only about 16 percent of the student population but made up more than a third of students suspended or expelled, according to the Department of Education. Black, Latino, and Native American students are also more likely to be arrested by school police. In the 2015-’16 school year, black students disproportionately accounted for 31 percent of those arrested or referred to law enforcement. This disparity isn’t limited to black boys; black girls account for 43 percent of girls arrested at school.

Collectively, these disparities have fueled concerns about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term describing the ways that school discipline and arrests push students of color out of classrooms and into the justice system.

Students of color are more likely to face police violence in schools

The concerns outlined in the report are not limited to arrests. A wave of high-profile incidents suggests that black and brown students are also more likely to face violence from school police.

The report makes this case by pointing to several high-profile incidents of police violence in schools. For example, a 16-year-old girl was violently thrown in her classroom by a police officer at Spring Valley High in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2015, and a second girl was arrested for protesting as she witnessed the incident. In 2016, a Baltimore Schools police officer was filmed slapping and kicking a student. Other students have been tasered, pepper-sprayed, and struck by police officers for offenses like “defiance.” Other headline-grabbing incidents have included preschoolers and kindergartners being handcuffed by police officers for throwing tantrums or not following orders.

“A lot of assaults are starting from minor situations,” says Julien Terrell, the executive director for the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth-led organization that has worked to reform schools in Philadelphia. If more schools were better funded and able to hire “people who were trained to offer a nurturing environment rather than being agents of control, you wouldn’t be seeing these problems.”

In all, the report highlights some 62 incidents of police violence in schools between November 2010 and March of this year, though the authors say this count is likely a low estimate. A recent Huffington Post analysis on this topic identified more than 80 incidents of students being tasered, assaulted, or pepper-sprayed between 2016 and 2018.

Advancement Project/Alliance for Educational Justice

The discrepancy between these two numbers points to a larger issue when it comes to tracking officer-involved incidents in schools. There isn’t a comprehensive database tracking police interactions or officer-involved violence in schools. Civil rights groups say that lack of data is part of a much larger lack of accountability when it comes to law enforcement in schools, making it difficult for students and parents to file complaints and see consequences for officers who use excessive force.

Much of this is due to the opaque and complicated nature of school policing. There is no consistent process or training for becoming a school police officer, and officers are not always trained on interacting with children and young adults, according to the report. Some school districts simply employ officers from a local police department, while cities like Baltimore actually have a separate police force for its schools. That variation in structure can make accountability difficult; parents and students often don’t know where to take their complaints. “The channels of accountability are extremely unclear,” says Tyler Whittenberg, an Advancement Project staff attorney.

Some districts, however, uphold a clear agreement between schools and police outlining what officers are allowed to do on campus and when they can make arrests. But in many districts, this is left completely to the officer’s discretion.

Calls for school safety rarely acknowledge how policing affects students of color

In many ways, the concerns outlined in the report closely echo concerns about policing and communities of color that have been raised more broadly in the years since the start of the Movement for Black Lives. Advocates note that children of color often negatively encounter police in their communities as well, making police in schools feel like an additional burden that exposes children to harm rather than making them safer.

One month after the Parkland shooting, black students there held a press conference, arguing that calls for more police on school grounds would put students of color at risk. “We want officers that will protect us, not racially profile us,” student Tyah-Amoy Roberts later told the Daily Beast. Similar concerns were raised during the National School Walkout on March 14, as students of color told reporters that they were marching to protest not only school shootings but also police violence, some of which had happened in their school hallways.

Recent efforts to discuss school policing and safety have often failed to acknowledge this. The Parkland shooting fueled calls from President Trump and some conservative groups to reverse an Obama-era guidance intended to reduce racial disparities in school discipline, arguing that the guidance had made school officials reluctant to involve law enforcement with problem students and criminal behavior. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other civil rights groups countered that rescinding the guidance would do little to prevent school shootings, and would instead leave students of color vulnerable.

And while an argument could be made that better officer training and an emphasis on deescalation can make school policing work, for a growing number of civil rights organizations, this is not the case.

The “We Came to Learn” report concludes that reform at this point will not be enough to end the problems students of color face in schools. Instead, the authors argue that police should be removed entirely, switching to a system where police are only called in as a final resort.

Advancement Project/Alliance for Educational Justice

This demand largely relies on an understanding of school safety that does not center so much on school shootings (which remain relatively rare, particularly in communities of color), and instead argues that school violence is more likely to involve police officers handling students roughly. A growing number of groups have called attention to this framing: In 2016, a coalition of 100 education groups called the Dignity in Schools Campaign called for police officers to be removed from schools. That same year, a United Nations working group also called to remove police officers from schools.

For the two groups behind the recent schools report, the money that has been used to increase the number of school officers across the country would be better spent on mental health services and counseling for students. “We need to expand the definition of, and investment in public safety to include more school-based counselors, social workers, and nurses,” the report authors note. They add that these groups are “trained to de-escalate community members in distress, whereas law enforcement are trained to meet force with force and to neutralize potential threat.”

Students have also raised the call, with youth groups in various cities launching campaigns that support divesting from law enforcement in favor of more student services.

“We need to be challenging ourselves about what is the purpose of education,” says Stith of the Alliance for Educational Justice. “And if we’re having folks [in schools] who aren’t committed to that or don’t play a role in uplifting that, we need to really start questioning why they are there in the first place.”

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