Policing in Schools

Zero tolerance policies are on the decline now that there is a greater awareness of how these policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. However, the ways in which schools can feel like prisons still endures, as policing in schools remains through other reform efforts and policies. And while zero-tolerance policies came to the fore in response to the 1999 Columbine school shooting 20 years ago, unfortunately history has repeated itself with a number of recent high-profile school shootings. CNN reported that in the first 21 weeks of 2018 there were 23 school shootings where someone was killed or injured, with the most highly profiled being the shooting on February 14 of that year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (Ahmed & Walker, 2018). Yet, school shootings account for less than 3% of youth homicides, and so fear largely clouds school and district communities’ decisions about policing and school safety (Keierleber, 2019).

Nevertheless, driven by fear in response to these more recent school shootings many school communities across the country are still considering increasing the level of policing in schools as a solution (Barnum, 2019). For example, Manor Independent School District, a district with a majority student of color enrollment (66.7% Latinx, 22.8% Black) on the northeast side of Austin, Texas, recently decided to create its own police department based on neoliberal terms. Essentially, the district having its own police department was described as a more economical option than to rely on the city’s policy department. The assistant superintendent explained, “We’re thrilled that we’re going to be able to provide even more of a police presence and security for our students at a lower price than we’re currently paying now” (Vidal, 2019, par. 1). However, the possible racial implications of ramping up police presence in a district that serves primarily Brown and Black students was absent from this discussion.

Based on the most recent 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), 1.6 million students attend school with sworn law enforcement but do not have any school counselors. That same school year, there were more school resource officers (SROs) (27,000) than social workers (23,000) in U.S. public schools (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). Likewise, an investigation into the 10 largest school districts in the U.S. found that four of the school districts—Chicago, Houston, New York City, and Miami-Dade—had more school police officers than school counselors (Barnum, 2016; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). Also, students’ contact with school law enforcement increases with every school level (Lindsay, Lee, & Lloyd, 2018).

Approximately 67% of high school students, 45% of middle school students, and 19% of elementary school students attend schools with a police officer (Lindsay et al., 2018). There are also regional differences in the level of policing in schools. Southern and mid-Atlantic states have the highest level of policing. In states such as Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, 90% or more of high school students attend a school that has a police officer.

Youth are now exposed to police officers in school more than any other support services important to their academic success. And there are individuals who endorse this heavy police presence and what they believe to be the benefits of having police in schools. Advocates believe that police presence in schools creates a safe space for students to learn by warding off any violent student behaviors and crime, and also see it as an opportunity to build bridges between the police, school, and the community (Corley, 2018; Lindsay et al., 2018). However, there is very little research that demonstrates the effectiveness of law enforcement in schools, and of the research that does exist, the methodological rigor is questionable (Lindsay et al., 2018; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2019). Instead, the presence of law enforcement in schools criminalizes even normal adolescent misbehavior and minor offenses, increases the number of student arrests, and is linked to increases in student referrals to the justice system (Lindsay et al., 2018; Petteruti, 2011; Theriot, 2009). For example, using data from the School Survey on Crime and Safety one study found that as schools increase their use of police, they record more weapons and drug offenses and also report a higher percentage of non-serious crimes to law enforcement (Na & Gottfredson, 2013). Another study was conducted in a single southeastern school district that compared schools with SROs, which are local law enforcement assigned to a school, to schools without and came up with similar findings. When controlling for school socioeconomic status the presence of a SRO increased the likelihood of a student arrest at a rate of 197.7% per 100 students. Also, with and without controlling for poverty, the presence of a SRO increased the likelihood a student would be arrested for disorderly conduct at a rate of 402.3% per 100 students and 128.2% per 100 students, respectively (Theriot, 2009).

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