Police in schools ‘prepare students for prison life,’ advocates want change

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As protests against police brutality continue in their third week, school districts across the country are making the decision to cut ties with local police. 

School police, commonly referred to as school resource officers, have been patrolling school hallways since the 1950s when the first officer was assigned to a Flint middle school. But following the death of George Floyd in May, schools are taking a look at negative implications of police presence on school grounds. 

A study done by EdWeek in 2017 shows that Black and Latino youth are more likely to be arrested than their white peers. 

Despite only making up 15.5% of the population in U.S. public schools, 33.4% of student arrests made in the 2013-14 school year were Black students. 

Mark Fancher | ACLU of Michigan photo

Mark Fancher, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Michigan attorney, said having police officers in school buildings, especially in majority-Black and urban schools, perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

“If you have a scenario where a couple of kids are engaged in a playground brawl, they’re rolling around and punching each other … there’s a potential for something like that to be transformed into assault and battery cases that immediately places the kids into the [justice] system,” Fancher said. 

“If they’re caught by a school resource officer, rather than by a guidance counselor or teacher, there’s a high probability and certainty that this is going to be a criminal matter, rather than just a school disciplinary matter. It has a profound and direct impact on the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Minneapolis Public Schools was the first major district to announce that they are ending their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, following the killing of Floyd, an African-American man who died at the hands of city police. 

Days later, school districts in other major cities, including Portland, Ore., Denver and Seattle, ended their contracts with local police. 

Teens in Oakland were tear gassed during a “police-free schools” demonstration. The district quickly reacted by announcing legislation to disband the district’s police unit by the upcoming school year.

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In Detroit, students, faculty and community members held a peace protest last week and marched through the streets demanding equity in education, including defunding the Detroit Public Schools Community District police force.

Nikolai Vitti, the DPSCD superintendent, has been vocal about his support for the Black Lives Matter movement and played a large role in the protest, but hasn’t made any promises to disband the department. 

“As you may know, DPSCD does not contract traditional police departments for officers. We have had our own department for years. This allows our officers to approach their day-to-day work in schools differently than a traditional police officer,” district spokesperson Chrystal Wilson told the Advance

Wilson said the department moved “in a more progressive direction” and focuses training on equity, progressive discipline and de-escalation tactics. 

“The district has also moved away from contracting security guards, and instead has hired full time staff to improve wages, benefits and provide consistent relationships with students and schools,” Wilson continued. “With that said, the superintendent and school board have been discussing ways to ‘defund’ the security budget in short-term and long-term ways, even before this issue became a part of the current national movement to defund police departments.”

Wilson said the budget has been reduced by $1 million since Vitti and the school board started their work together in 2017. 

Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD, general superintendent | Ken Coleman

But for civil rights activists, this isn’t enough. 

According to 482Forward, a Detroit education group that advocates for students’ rights, the district spent $15 million on policing and surveillance last year.

The group has listed out a number of demands for the district to meet that would limit police involvement in the schools.

Those demands include that the district release data on police spending, interactions with the district’s police department and misconduct reports and suspension data by July 1, create a community-led safety committee, divest 50% of the DPSCD-PD budget June 30 and 100% of the budget by June 30, 2021, and create a community-led committee to evaluate educator’s training, curriculum and district practices. 

Do police make schools safer?

Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for justice system reform, argues that having police officers on school grounds “has no real positive impact” on students, especially students of color, who are disproportionately expelled, arrested and referred to the justice system. 

“Essentially, it gives a false sense of security to adults, to parents and others who sincerely believe that this is the best way to try to address concerns about school safety, which are legitimate concerns,” Schindler said. “So parents and administrators are nervous and they want to do something. 

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“… So what you have I think our school administrators, school board members and state officials who are thinking that they’re doing a good thing by responding with law enforcement, but unfortunately, there’s nothing that suggests that’s helpful. In fact, there’s research out there that says it’s actually harmful.”

Schindler says to address safety concerns in schools, districts need to focus on students before it gets to the point of disciplinary action. To do that, Schindler suggests that schools invest in counselors, social workers and nurses. 

“There are many people in [school resource officer] positions who are good people, they’re just not in the right position. Because if you talk to them they will say, ‘Well, I basically function as a social worker or counselor,’” Schindler said. 

Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said that part of the training for school resource officers is to act as an “informal counselor.”

“There’s a reason that that middle word is resource. It is truly meant to say that this officer is a resource to the school community,” Canady said. “We’re teaching them about more than just law enforcement presence, which is just as important and critical, but also their role as an informal counselor, not a school counselor, but an informal counselor in the context of the lives of counseling people, but tweaked for the school environment.”

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However, Schindler believes that that job is better fit for social workers and trained counselors.

“The fact is, that’s not their training. And so you have somebody who’s trained as a cop, sort of faking it or doing their best to be a counselor or social worker,” he said. “Schools should use the scarce dollars to actually hire somebody who has that training as the social worker or counselor. They’re going to be better at that job. And it costs less.”

According to data from the ACLU, 14 million students are in schools with police, but do not have counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers. 

In Michigan, the student-to-counselor ratio is one counselor for every 693 students. The recommended ratio is one counselor for every 250 students.

DPSCD, the largest school district in the state, spent less than $1 million on social workers in 2015, according to 482Forward. 

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How did we get here?

When Flint Public Schools became the first district to establish a police-school liaison program in 1958, it was groundbreaking. 

Four years after the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, a historic legal battle that aimed to end segregation in public schools, the first police officer was placed in Bryant Community Junior High School. 

The school, which closed in 2013, was located in a low-income and racially integrated area of Flint. 

According to University of Florida research into the history of school resource officers, youth crimes were on the rise and city officials were looking for a resolution to the issue. 

The program began with one police officer dressed in plain clothes who patrolled the campus, handled disciplinary actions and investigations and provided security.

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Initially, the program was considered a success by the school district, police department and the community. It became the model for school districts all across the country.

Decades later, after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, the push for higher security and police presence in public schools became even stronger. 

In 2018, when a school shooting killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the state required all schools to have a police officer or armed security. 

In Parkland, the School Resource Officer, Scot Peterson, was criticized for staying outside for 45 minutes while approximately 75 shots were fired. He was arrested on seven counts of neglect of a child, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury. 

Civil rights activists have been calling on school districts to end their partnerships with police departments for decades, especially as research shows that school violence is declining. 

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The school resource officer program began at a time when race-relations between police and Black communities were tense and dangerous.

Now as anti-police brutality protests continue for their third consecutive week after Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting for the same freedoms decades later and call for and end to over-policing Black communities. 

As data shows that Black and Latino students are disproportionately arrested and disciplined, activists point to systemic oppression, including the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Having police in schools makes students comfortable with being prisoners,” Fancher said. “Having to go through checkpoints, having to go from room to room when bells ring and having armed, or unarmed, people in uniform walking the hallways, it prepares them very well for prison life.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.