36% of elementary schools and 65% of high schools in the U.S. have police officers on site, but the tide may be changing.
The abuses of power and violence that have become the norm in the culture of policing were brutally exposed by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25. The tragedy had led to continuing civic unrest, protests across the United States and the world. Amid demands to defund and abolish the police, police in schools have become the latest target of school boards and protesters.
On June 2 the Minneapolis Public Schools Board ended their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. This move unleashed similar responses across school districts in cities such as Portland, Seattle, Oakland and Denver, all voting for contract cancelations or plans to phase out partnerships with their local police departments.
Placing police officers in schools started as early as the 1950’s, in efforts to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and communities. Overtime, with growth in federal funding and accelerated by the proliferation of mass shootings in schools, police presence in educational establishments has become the norm.
Currently, 36% elementary schools and 65% of middle and high schools in the U.S. have police presence. In some southern states like Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee up to 90% of high school students attend establishments with police presence. This growth can mean anything, from more community liaisons to tanks and grenades.
For some families, police in schools means some sense of security in light of lack of gun control and the risk of school shootings. For others it means the threat of disagreements escalating to police action, arrests, or even their first contact with the criminal justice system.
In Orlando, Florida Ms. Matos, a Puerto Rican mother of a middle school student, shares that coming from a military and police family, she appreciates the role that the officer can play in the school, especially with the fear of school shootings. As an active member of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Ms. Matos regularly attends meetings and events at the school. She shared that the school police officer would “always walk around and have an active presence. If there was a night activity, he’s there connecting with families and students.”
Then again, in the same Orlando area, a police officer in lost his job after arresting two 6 year olds at school in one week in 2019. One of the children was Kaia Rolle, who was struggling to get enough sleep due to sleep apnea. The arrest, that included tying her small hands with zip ties, was captured on video, leading to public outrage.
Ms. Matos notes that “a lot depends on the person in the role.” The officer she and her daughter built a relationship with was also Puerto Rican. He recently left the school and they haven’t met the new one yet. The one before him didn’t have a good reputation for connecting with the school community. “They have to want to be there. They have to be good with students and kids and will make the time to engage with the community.”
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The majority of teens and their parents worry about school shootings, and among them Hispanic students worry the most. However, research shows that police in schools do not consistently improve the perception of safety. Moreover, there are no good evaluation studies that support that police in schools actually make schools safer.
Some argue that police in schools could help improve community relations but a study of school resource officers at four schools in Missouri found that the mere presence does not actually impact positively the views of students of police.
Why Police in Schools Is Worse For Students of Color
Police interventions in schools are more likely to lead to out-of-school suspensions, which have been shown to be detrimental for students and teachers. Hispanic students are 1.3 times more likely to be suspended than white students. The number is much bigger for Black students: 3.9 times.
In an effort to bring attention to excessive use of force by police in schools, more than 500 people attended a student-led protest in Durham, North Carolina this past weekend, led by graduating high school senior Aissa Dearing.
Dearing has been fighting to get police out of her school for years. Dearing wrote a letter to Durham Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and Chairman Mike Lee demanding they remove officers from public schools and reallocate that money to other programs, including mental health care.
“I have been a student of Durham Public Schools for 13 years,” Dearing says. “During these 13 years, I have both witnessed and been a party to interventions by School Resource Officers (SROs) that escalate situations with students in the name of school safety. These situations could have been better addressed by counselors, social workers, and others with a background in working with children rather than law enforcement.”
Dearing said she has seen students handcuffed, thrown on the hoods of police cars, and patrolling the halls, which she said is a scary sight. She, too, was once reprimanded by a teacher who was accompanied by an officer as a form of intimidation. She said the incident didn’t escalate, and after her mom came to the school, her teacher apologized.
While some School Resource Officers may take it upon themselves to establish positive ties with the community, the data shows that their presence tends to result in harsher disciplinary actions and escalations that impact disproportionately Black and Hispanic students.