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Cops at the schoolyard gate

How the number of police officers in schools skyrocketed in recent decades — and made for a harrowing education for Black and brown youth.

A Los Angeles school police officer patrols the halls of a school in this 2015 photo.
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Part of The Schools Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

When I was in high school, my school looked like a school. Teachers were in the classrooms. Our principal was in the front office. We had a guidance counselor who helped us think about where to go to college or how to get a job. We had a gym, a basketball court, and a football field.

Today, when I meet my clients at school, I can barely distinguish a school visit from a legal visit to the local youth detention center. At the front door, I am greeted by a phalanx of uniformed police officers, some of whom have guns at their side. In schools, these officers are called school resource officers, or SROs. They are sworn police officers who patrol schools all over the country. In DC, the officers tell me to take everything out of my pockets, put my items in a plastic bin, and run them through a metal detector. I am then instructed to walk through a full-body scanner, and if I wear big jewelry or have metal in my shoes, the officer will “wand” me again with a handheld detector on the other side.

I watch as students all around me are treated the same. There is a lot of banter between the students and the officers — some of it playful, some of it hostile. At one school, an officer tells a child, “You know you’re not supposed to have a cellphone in school. You need to sign that into the front office.” The student lets out a loud sigh and drops the f-word. Another student yells out, “Man, I’m going to be late to class, let me go through.” At least one student is asked to remove his shoes. As I look up, I can see security cameras in the lobby. And when I head to a classroom on the third floor, I am escorted to the elevator by an officer who wants to make sure I am okay. To put it mildly, the schools my clients attend look like prisons at the front door.

I have now been representing children in DC for 25 years, mostly as the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law, where I supervise law students and new attorneys defending children charged with crimes in the city. I also spend a good deal of time traveling, training, and strategizing with juvenile defenders across the country in partnership with the National Juvenile Defender Center.

From the East Coast to the West, from the Deep South to the North, Black children appear in juvenile and criminal courts across the country in numbers that far exceed their presence in the population. Black children are accosted all over the nation for the most ordinary adolescent activities — shopping for prom clothes, playing in the park, listening to music, buying juice from a convenience store, wearing the latest fashion trend, and protesting for their social and political rights.

In DC, our elected attorney general is more attentive now to the harms and disparities impacting people of color, but even with these changes, I have still spent much of the last two decades fighting for Black children who have been arrested and prosecuted for “horseplay” on the Metro, breaking a school window, stealing a pass to a school football game, throwing snowballs (a.k.a. “missiles”) at a passing police car, hurling pebbles across the street at another kid, playing “toss” with a teacher’s hat, and snatching a cellphone from a boyfriend. I have seen Black children handcuffed at ages 9 and 10; 12- and 13-year-old Black boys stopped for riding their bicycles; and industrious 16-and 17-year-old Black youth detained for selling water on the National Mall. The list goes on.

We live in a society that is uniquely afraid of Black children. Americans become anxious — if not outright terrified — at the sight of a Black child ringing the doorbell, riding in a car with white women, or walking too close in a convenience store. Americans think of Black children as predatory, sexually deviant, and immoral. For many, that fear is subconscious, arising out of the historical and contemporary narratives that have been manufactured by politicians, business leaders, and others who have a stake in maintaining the social, economic, and political status quo.

There is something particularly efficient about treating Black children like criminals in adolescence. Black youth are dehumanized, exploited, and even killed to establish the boundaries of whiteness before they reach adulthood and assert their rights and independence. It is no coincidence that Emmett Till was 14 when he was lynched, Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was shot by a volunteer neighborhood watchman, Tamir Rice was 12 when he was shot by the police at a park, Dajerria Becton was 15 when she was slammed to the ground by police at a pool party, and four Black and Latina girls were 12 when they were strip-searched for being “hyper and giddy” in the hallway of their New York middle school.

School resource officers appear in all 50 states. They are visible in both urban meccas and small towns. In 1975, only 1 percent of US schools reported having police stationed on campus. By the 2017–18 school year, 36 percent of elementary schools, 67.6 percent of middle schools, and 72 percent of high schools reported having sworn officers on campus routinely carrying a firearm. In raw numbers, there were 9,400 school resource officers in 1997. By 2016, there were at least 27,000.

Because police operate under many different titles in schools, these numbers are surely low. Tallies often miss private security guards and neighborhood officers assigned by the local police department to patrol several schools without any formal agreement with the school district.

According to a survey of school resource officers in 2018, more than half worked for local police or sheriff’s departments. Twenty percent worked for school police departments, and the remaining worked for some “other” category including the school district, an individual school, school security employers, private companies, and fire departments. Some school systems, like those in Baltimore, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Oakland, and Philadelphia, have their own independent police departments. The Los Angeles School Police Department has more than 350 sworn police officers and 125 non-sworn school safety officers.

School resource officers often patrol with guns, batons, Tasers, body cameras, pepper spray, handcuffs, K-9 units, and handheld and full-body metal detectors like those found at an airport. Some are even equipped with military-grade weapons such as tanks, grenade launchers, and M16s.

So what happened to cause such a shift in school culture since I was in high school 35 years ago? For far too long I accepted the simple and often repeated explanation that parents were terrified to send their children to school after the deadly mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. Although Columbine certainly played a role in the rapid expansion of school resource officers in the early 21st century, the National Association of School Resource Officers had already formed in 1991, eight years before the tragedy in Colorado. Our nation’s obsession with policing in public schools began long before Columbine. That story began in the mid-20th century, with the fight for — and against — racial desegregation.

Researchers believe the first law enforcement officers appeared in public schools as early as 1939, when the Indianapolis Public Schools hired a “special investigator” to serve the school district from 1939 to 1952.

In 1952, that investigator began to supervise a loosely organized group of police officers who patrolled school property, performed traffic duties, and conducted security checks after hours. The group was reorganized in 1970 to form the Indianapolis School Police. It is significant that the Ku Klux Klan controlled both the state legislature and the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners from the 1920s through the formation of the early school police force. The Klan had segregated Indianapolis schools by 1927 and kept them that way until the federal government intervened in the 1960s.

Other school districts began hiring police in the mid-20th century — more explicitly in response to the evolving racial dynamics in the country. American cities had become more diverse after World War II as Blacks left the Jim Crow South in search of opportunities in industrial centers such as Los Angeles and Flint, Michigan. Whites who were uncomfortable with the exploding populations and shifting demographics blamed the new migrants for emerging social problems such as poverty, racial and ethnic tension, and crime.

Teachers in Flint planted the seed — maybe inadvertently — for a law enforcement presence in schools during a 1953 workshop, when they expressed concerns about growing student enrollments and the potentially negative impacts of overcrowding, including delinquency. Seeking to address these concerns, Flint educators, police, and civic leaders collaborated in 1958 to implement the nation’s first Police-School Liaison Program and ultimately developed the framework for school resource officers as we know them today.

Schools across the country followed Flint’s lead. Programs sprang up in cities including Anchorage, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Boise, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Oakland, Seattle, and Tucson, on the heels of the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end legal segregation in public schools.

State and local governments sent police into schools under the pretense of protecting Black youth. The real motives, however, likely had more to do with white fear, privilege, and resentment. Municipal leaders in the North and South claimed that Black children lacked discipline and feared they would bring disorder to their schools. In 1957, representatives from the New York City Police Department described Black and Latinx students in low-income neighborhoods as “dangerous delinquents” and “undesirables” capable of “corroding school morale.” Policing in schools also gave school administrators a mechanism for preserving resources for white middle-class students and keeping Black youth in their place.

Tensions escalated the following decade as Black students balked at whites’ opposition to racial equality and schools’ bold refusals to integrate. In cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, and Oklahoma City, students organized protests, walkouts, and marches to demand equal resources and opportunity. Students also insisted on culturally relevant curricula and basic dignity in the classroom.

White, middle-class Americans equated civil rights action with crime and delinquency, inflaming — and sometimes manufacturing — fears of a growing youth crime problem. In this turbulent climate, cities implemented school-police partnerships to combat a “problem” that police and educators explicitly and implicitly blamed on Black and other marginalized youth.

Policing in the schoolhouse grew in lockstep with civil rights protests and gradually became a permanent fixture in integrated schools.

While most school-police partnerships started as local initiatives like the one in Flint, these programs began to draw federal support in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to “inquire into the causes of crime and delinquency” and provide recommendations for prevention. In its 1967 report, the commission predicted that youth would be the greatest threat to public safety in the years to come.

The report drew a tight connection between race, crime, and poverty and frequently reminded readers that “Negroes, who live in disproportionate numbers in slum neighborhoods, account for a disproportionate number of arrests.” The commission referred to young people in racially charged language like “slum children” and “slum youth” from “slum families” and noted that many Americans had already become suspicious of “Negroes” and adolescents they believed to be responsible for crime. The commission’s analysis aligned with television and newspaper reports that stoked fears by depicting civil rights protests as criminal acts instead of political demonstrations against oppression.

Against this backdrop, local and state law enforcement agencies applied for federal grants through the Department of Justice’s newly created Office of Law Enforcement Assistance to fund new crime prevention plans like school-police partnerships.

Concerns about discrimination in school-based policing surfaced almost immediately, including in Flint, the birthplace of the school-police partnership. Notwithstanding initial concerns about delinquency in school, Black teachers and parents began to complain that Flint’s Police-School Liaison Program targeted students of color. As reported in a 1971 review of the initiative, some teachers said the program was “aimed specifically at the black community” and was “anathema to black people” because it enforced “middle class white ethics and mores.”

The race-baiting and fearmongering that motivated the first school-police partnerships during the civil rights era were followed by the mythic lies of the “superpredator” craze in the 1990s. With crime on the rise and the crack epidemic at full throttle by the end of the 1980s, white fears reached epic proportions. State and federal politicians accepted Princeton professor John J. DiIulio Jr.’s highly publicized yet unscientific 1995 predictions of a coming band of Black teenage “superpredators” with reckless abandon, and passed legislation to increase police presence in every aspect of Black adolescent life. Schools were a natural focus.

Congress also passed both the Gun-Free Schools Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994. The Gun-Free Schools Act was passed to keep drugs, guns, and other weapons out of schools. The Violent Crime Control Act created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, radically increased federal funding for policing in communities, and laid the foundation for a new wave of federal funding for police in schools.

And then there was Columbine. On April 20, 1999, the nation was rocked by a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two 12th-graders, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and one teacher. Twenty-one additional people were injured by gunshots. Another three were injured trying to escape the school. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in US history.

Columbine was the 12th in a spate of school shootings committed by students between 1996 and 1999. These deadly tragedies terrified parents and teachers and prompted increased funding for school safety everywhere. In October 1998, just months before the shooting at Columbine, Congress had already voted to allocate funding for the COPS in Schools grants program.

Days after the shooting, in April 1999, President Bill Clinton promised that the COPS office would release $70 million to fund an additional 600 police officers in schools in 336 communities across the country. In 1998 and 1999, COPS awarded 275 jurisdictions more than $30 million for law enforcement to partner with school systems to address crime and disorder in and around schools. Between 1999 and 2005, COPS in Schools awarded more than $750 million in grants to more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies to hire SROs.

Although these shootings do explain the immediate increase in funding for police in schools, the shootings do not explain the disproportionate surge of police in schools serving mostly Black and Latinx students. Although the vast majority of the school-based shootings in the 1990s — and again in 2012 — occurred in primarily white suburban schools, school resource officers are more likely to be assigned to schools serving mostly students of color.

National data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reveals that youth of color are more likely than white youth to attend schools that employ school police officers. In the 2015–16 school year, 54.1 percent of middle and high schools serving a student body that was at least 75 percent Black had at least one school-based law enforcement or security officer on campus. By contrast, only 32.5 percent of schools serving a student body that was 75 percent or more white had such personnel in place.

The 1990s brought a rapid increase in both school suspensions and school-based arrests as police officers remained confused about their roles on campus and new laws were passed to criminalize normal adolescent behavior. Administrators in the first school-police partnerships viewed school resource officers as part teacher, part counselor, and part law enforcement officer only when necessary.

The partners in Flint hoped to foster a positive relationship between youth and police, prevent youth crime, and provide counseling services for students believed to be at risk of delinquency. As police became more entrenched in schools, students, parents, and civil rights advocates complained that police officers weren’t trained to be counselors and worried about the potential for conflicts of interest when police tried to serve multiple functions. Civil rights groups worried that police were violating students’ rights through unsupervised interrogations, harassment, and surveillance.

Thirty years later, police still haven’t figured out what schools want them to do, and schools haven’t figured out what they want police to do. Only 15 states require schools and law enforcement agencies to develop memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to specify the scope and limits of the officers’ authority on campus. When school districts do have an MOU, they usually focus on the cost-sharing aspects of the agreement and offer few details about when, where, and how police can intervene with students.

Even when school resource officers are expressly hired to respond to emergencies and protect students from guns and serious threats of violence, they are quickly drawn into the more routine activities of law enforcement on campus. Forty-one percent of school resource officers surveyed in 2018 reported that “enforcing laws” was their primary role on campus. Police often arrive with little or no training on how their traditional law enforcement roles should differ within the school context and even less training on developmental psychology and adolescent brain development.

A 2013 study found that police academies nationwide spend less than 1 percent of total training hours on juvenile justice topics. In the 2018 survey, roughly 25 percent of school police surveyed indicated that they had no experience with youth before working in schools. Sixty-three percent reported they had never been trained on the teen brain; 61 percent had never been trained on child trauma; and 46 percent had never been trained to work with special education students. Without better training and guidance, police in schools do what they always do. They detain, investigate, interrogate, and arrest. They also intervene with force — sometimes violent and deadly force.

Ultimately, more police in schools means more arrests — three and a half times more arrests than in schools without police. And it means more arrests for minor infractions that teachers and principals used to handle on their own.

When I was in high school in the mid-1980s, we were sent to the principal’s office when we acted out. Sometimes we had to stay after school for detention. I even got suspended once for “play fighting” with one of my classmates, but I was never arrested. Today, children get arrested regularly at school, and mostly for things kids do all the time: fighting or threatening a classmate, breaking a window in anger, vandalism and graffiti, having weed, taking something from someone on a dare, arguing in the hallway when they are supposed to be in class.

Data from across the country mirrors what I see in DC. Although only 7 percent of officers surveyed in 2018 described their duties as “enforcing school discipline,” evidence shows that educators routinely depend on police to handle minor misbehaviors such as disobedience, disrespectful attitudes, disrupting the classroom, and other adolescent behaviors that have little or no impact on school safety. State lawmakers have even passed laws making it a crime to disturb or disrupt the school. As of 2016, at least 22 states and dozens of cities and towns outlaw school disturbances in one way or another.

The Maryland state legislature adopted its “disturbing schools” law back in 1967, shortly after the Baltimore City School District created its school security division. During the 2017–18 school year, 3,167 students were arrested in Maryland’s public schools. About 14 percent of those arrests were for “disruption.” Until May 2018, students in South Carolina could be arrested for disturbing the school if they “loitered about,” “acted in an obnoxious manner,” or “interfered with or disturbed” any student or teacher at school. The penalty was a $1,000 fine and a possible 90-day sentence in jail.

In the 2015-16 academic year, 1,324 students were arrested or cited in the state for disturbing schools, making it the second most common delinquency offense referred to the family court. Black students were almost four times more likely than white youth to be deemed criminally responsible for disturbing schools. South Carolina lawmakers finally eliminated the crime in 2018.

Police in schools are symbolic. They provide an easy answer to fears about violence, guns, and mass shootings. They allow policymakers to demonstrate their commitment to school safety. And for a time, they make teachers and parents “feel” safe. But those who have studied school policing tell us this is a false sense of security.

Schools with school resource officers are not necessarily any safer. An audit from North Carolina, for example, found that middle schools that used state grants to hire and train SROs did not report reductions in serious incidents like assaults, homicides, bomb threats, possession and use of alcohol and drugs, or the possession of weapons.

And many advocates for police in schools forget that school resource officers were widely criticized for their failures to intervene in the shootings at both Columbine and Parkland. The officer in Columbine followed local protocol at the time and did not pursue the shooters into the building. Many speculated that if he had, there was a good chance the gunmen would not have reached the library, where so many students were targeted. Instead of immediately confronting the threat, school police secured the scene and waited for SWAT teams to arrive.

The sheriff’s deputy who was assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, also never went in the building, despite an active-shooter policy that instructed deputies to interrupt the shooting and search for victims after a ceasefire. Students later complained that they saw the armed deputy standing outside in a bulletproof vest while school security guards and coaches were running in to shield the students.

Police don’t make students feel safer — at least not Black students in heavily policed communities. To the contrary, police in schools increase psychological trauma, create a hostile learning environment, and expose Black students to physical violence. For students who have already been exposed to police outside school, negative encounters with police in school confirm what their parents and neighbors have told them.

Black students enter their schools to be accosted by the same officers who stop, harass, and even physically assault their family and friends on the street. In much the same way they resent aggressive and racially targeted policing in their communities, students resent inconsistent and unfair school discipline. Black students don’t feel welcome or trusted at school and are less likely than white students to report that school police and security officers have treated them with respect.

For many students, schools have become a literal and figurative extension of the criminal legal system. As schools increasingly rely on police officers to monitor the hallways and control classroom behavior, students feel anxious and alienated by the constant surveillance and fear of police brutality. Over time, students transfer their distrust, resentment, and hostility toward the police to school authorities. Teachers become interchangeable with the police, principals become wardens, and students no longer see school staff as educators, advocates, and protectors.

Black students who feel devalued by unfair disciplinary practices are more likely to withdraw and become delinquent. Policing in schools creates a vicious vortex. Students in heavily policed environments are less likely to be engaged and more likely to drop out. Youth who drop out are more likely to be arrested.

Not only do students feel less safe in school, but they are less safe.

Organizations like the Alliance for Educational Justice have been tracking police assaults in schools across the country for many years. Since 2009, the organization has recorded numerous stories from students of color, as young as 12, who have been hit on the head, choked, punched repeatedly, slammed to the ground, kneed in the back, dragged down the hall, pepper-sprayed while handcuffed, shocked with a stun gun, tased, struck by a metal nightstick, beaten with a baton, and even killed by police at school.

Most recently, in January 2021, 16-year-old Taylor Bracey was knocked unconscious and suffered from headaches, blurry vision, and depression after being body-slammed onto a concrete floor by a school resource officer in Kissimmee, Florida.

Most often, police violence is inflicted in response to nonviolent student behaviors. Students have been physically assaulted for wearing a hat indoors, not tucking in their shirts as required by the dress code, being late to class, going to the bathroom without permission, participating in school demonstrations, fighting in school, having marijuana, being emotionally distraught, cursing at school officials, refusing to give up a cellphone when asked, arguing with a parent on campus, and throwing an orange at the wall.

After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, investigators from the Department of Justice found that officers in the local school district often used force against students of color for minor disciplinary violations like “peace disturbance” and “failure to comply with instructions.” In one instance, a 15-year-old girl was slammed against a locker and arrested for not following an officer’s orders to go to the principal’s office.

Students of color have characterized policing in schools as a coordinated and intentional effort to control and exclude them. Ironically, proponents of the federally funded COPS in Schools grant program hoped that sending police to schools would improve the image of police generally and increase the level of respect that young people have for the law and the role of law enforcement.

Even Flint’s first school-police partnership was framed as an attempt to “improve community relations between the city’s youth and the local police department.” To date, these efforts have failed. Police in schools remain deeply entrenched in their traditional law enforcement roles and have been unable to dislodge youth’s negative opinions and attitudes about them. The more recent and highly visible incidents of discrimination and brutality against students of color only reinforce historical images of the police as a tool of racial oppression.

Now, 65 years after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools is illegal, Black youth are still systematically denied free, safe, and appropriate education. School segregation is achieved and maintained through school-based arrests and exclusions that deny Black youth access to a high school diploma and all of the opportunities that diploma can provide. In modern America, where formal education is the primary gateway to college, employment, and financial independence, policing in school puts Black youth at a severe disadvantage.

Given how little school-based arrests achieve, current policing strategies can no longer be justified as necessary for school safety. The unnecessary and extreme discipline of Black youth has little to do with the school-based massacres of the 1990s. Columbine can’t explain police involvement in routine school discipline, discriminatory enforcement of school rules, or massive spending on the police infrastructure in American schools. And it certainly can’t explain the violent force that is used to control children of color. It is about time we admit that our infatuation with policing Black children in schools was never about Columbine.

Excerpted from The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth by Kristin Henning (Pantheon Books, September 28, 2021).

Kristin Henning is a nationally recognized trainer and consultant on the intersection of race, adolescence, and policing. She is the Blume professor of law and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at the Georgetown University Law Center; from 1998 to 2001 she was the lead attorney of the Juvenile Unit at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

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