Feds to Schools: Kids Don’t Need More Cops on Campus

The Department of Education recommends reducing the presence of police and boosting counseling and behavioral approaches to student discipline.

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sep 15, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

If unequal application of discipline in schools is a conduit in the school-to-prison pipeline, then police officers in schools are typically the pump. By some estimates, up to half the nation’s public schools have at least a part-time officer patrolling the hallways—and some struggling districts are far more likely to employ a cop than a guidance counselor.

Last week, however, the Department of Education sent a letter to districts around the country urging them to dial back the number of armed, uniformed law enforcement officers, often known as school resource officers, in their schools.

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The letter from Education Secretary John King Jr. also laid out guidelines for educators, emphasizing proved behavior and counseling policies that can reduce or eliminate the need for school law enforcement.

“School districts that choose to use SROs should incorporate them responsibly into school learning environments and ensure that they have no role in administering school discipline,” King wrote. Administrators and politicians, he said, “should consider setting policy and passing legislation designed to help SROs minimize citations and arrests of students and use diversion programs and other alternatives to arrest, detainment, or the use of force.”

Besides being released amid the Black Lives Matter movement’s push to reduce police use-of-force deaths against black men, King’s call for restraint in deploying school resource officers comes just months after officers manhandled students in Texas and South Carolina, spurring calls for reform.

“I think it’s definitely a good move. I think it’s progress,” Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank that has studied the issue, told TakePart. “This issue has been the subject of discussion for many years now,” and the discussion intensified after “some incidents in school that have gotten a lot of attention.”

“Frankly, I would have loved [the Obama administration] to say ‘Get rid of all school resource officers,’ ” Schindler said.

Last year in Columbia, South Carolina, a male school resource officer’s arrest of a female student hit the national news when footage of the officer manhandling her surfaced on social media. Video of the incident shows the burly deputy flipping her chair and desk backward, then slamming her to the floor before dragging her to the front of the classroom and handcuffing her facedown.

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“The incident in South Carolina illustrates the kind of challenges we see around the country,” King wrote in the letter. Studies show black students across the U.S. are far likelier to face punishment—suspension, expulsion, even arrest—than their white peers.

In the South Carolina case, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, which suspended and subsequently fired the officer, reached an agreement with federal officials to upgrade school resource officer training.

Mindful that many school districts don’t have guidelines on best practices for cops in schools, the White House has created guidelines for law enforcement officers that schools should follow, including calling in on-campus police for misbehavior as a last resort. Before things get to that point, the administration recommends that school resource officers should strive to develop a positive relationship with students and focus on their safety while at the same time receive professional-level instruction on implicit bias and civil rights law.

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Research shows that kids who attend schools with counselors feel safer, have better grades, and are more likely to go to college. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors. During the 2013–14 school year, the most recent year for which data are available, the national average was 491-to-1. Some of the nation’s largest school districts—including New York City, Chicago, Miami–Dade County, and Houston—employ more police than school counselors. High schools in cash-strapped districts might not have a full-time counselor at all.

Meanwhile, the number of police in schools has exploded in recent years, an increase prompted by the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. By most counts there are as many as 17,000 school resource officers nationwide.

In hiring so many cops, Schindler said, officials and school administrators erred on the side of caution and visibility. Even though Columbine-scale shootings are rare, he said, doing something apparent, in the form of hiring armed officers to patrol the schools, put parents and administrators at ease, even if the approach was less effective than providing training for teachers on how to react and keep kids safe.

“There was a rush to try and create secure and safe schools, which, quite frankly, was not necessary because large schools are secure and safe,” he said.

But an opposite problem in poor urban schools—everyday violence against teachers and students—led to schools that had more in common with prisons than with places of learning, including metal detectors by doors and surveillance cameras in hallways.

“When you do that, research shows you create environments where kids feel less safe,” Schindler said. “Most secure environments are where adults have relationships with kids and not where you have somebody carrying a firearm.”

To be as safe as possible, Schindler said schools should build on the Education Department recommendations by investing in training staff members to understand how their students think.

“It’s absolutely key. All adults who work with young people—and that goes from teachers to administrators to librarians to maintenance staff—all should be trained on the basic principles of adolescent and child development,” he said. “That will go a long way toward giving staff in school the ability and tools to interact in a positive way with young people.”