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Do We Need Police for Safe Schools? I Think Not!

Over the past two decades, the presence of police has increased in schools to the extent that students are arguably learning to live in a police state. Two recent articles underscore this trend and led me to the question that is the title of this post.

In a Truthout article last week, GS Potter describes “How Police Became Part of the Public School System and How to Get Them Out.” In the post, Potter uses the recent incident in South Carolina as an example of how police in schools are needlessly using force and goes on to describe the expansion of Student Resource Officers (SROs) from their inception in 1958 and their limited impact until the 1990s. Initially funded solely through small grants and local funds, SROs became a federal initiative beginning in the Clinton administration and expanding dramatically thereafter: :

 In the 1990s, though, police presence in public schools nationwide grew exponentially. During this decade, both the National Association for School Resource Officers was formed, and the US Justice Department developed their COPS in Schools grant program. This federal support dramatically increased the number of law enforcement officers in classrooms across the country. For example, according to a report published in Justice Quarterly, “As of July 2005, COPS has awarded in excess of $753 million to more than 3,000 grantees to hire more than 6,500 SROs through the CIS program and more than $10 million to hire approximately 100 SROs through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.”

This huge outlay of federal funds continues, with the Obama administration seeking an additional $150,000,000 for the coming year to bring the total number of federally funded SROs to 17,000. The roots of the problem with this program are in the fact that there is no clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement officials and school officials and the fact that most SROs lack the ability to work with emotionally handicapped and diverse populations. Evidence of this inability emerge when one examines the statistics on those arrested by officers for misconduct in schools. Potter writes:

…according to a joint letter written by the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice, “certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers.” Similarly, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that Black students are suspended and expelled three times more frequently than white students, and that Indigenous students are also punished disproportionately. The report also states that students with disabilities “represent 12% of the student populations, but 58% of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75% of those physically restrained at school…. Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities … but 36% of these students who are restrained at school …”

The unfair treatment received by disadvantaged students in the classroom has only been reinforced by law enforcement agencies that also have records of unfairly targeting members of disadvantaged populations in their communities.

Potter describes the impact of SROs on minority and disabled students in detail, but overlooks the subtle impact the poise presence has on the entire student body. The presence of SROs disempowers the administration in the school since their power to punish is small in comparison to that of the police. The presence of SROs also undercuts the Principal’s ability to create a culture of caring, a climate that could mitigate the need for any forceful discipline. Finally, the presence of SROs sends a message to students that the only means of having a safe environment is to have visible police presence everywhere.

After reading Potter’s blog post in Truthout, I found an article by Mak Ojutku in yesterday’s Jersey Post especially chilling. The report describes a partnership between the Jersey City School Board and the Jersey City Police “to create a new way for students, faculty, and parents to report inappropriate activity in and around city schools.” WeTip, a 24/7 hotline to the police department, will make it possible for students to report:

“…anything from school bullying to major crimes. Depending on the information provided, the tip will be forwarded to the district’s security office or the police department.

The article doesn’t explain who will make the determination as to whether an incident warrants intervention by the police… and as a high school disciplinarian for six years I can assure you that the police and schools have different standards when it comes to defining misconduct.

The article concludes with the numbers one should call to make a report:

The hotline can be reached at the following designated numbers: 1-800-78-CRIME, 1-855-86-BULLY, 1-800-47-DRUGS, and 1-800-HIT-N-RUN.

I think it’s time to call 1-800-PEACENOW, reduce the number of SROs and use the funds to bring in guidance counselors and social workers for students.

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