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Are Police in Schools Making Students Safer, or Putting Them at Greater Risk for Abuse?

Police intervention in our public schools is on the rise. Whether that's a good thing for students has yet to be determined.

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With Increased Police Presence Comes Increased Risk of Abuse

As more and more school districts turn to the use of police officers on the grounds of their campuses, further questions arise regarding the overall safety of students and communities. As schools struggle to handle complex issues like violence prevention, some advocates are concerned about whether police on campus are really the best solution.

In particular, there is notable apprehension about how and whether the civil rights of students are protected when police officers are in school. A number of legal precedents have established that schools have certain privileges when it comes to restricting free speech and other rights in the interest of school safety. But what happens when a student is interrogated by a police officer on school grounds without a parent present or a Miranda warning? Or, as is not uncommon, when school staff and/or police manipulate students into confessing to illegal activity? What kind of recourse do students have when they experience police harassment and brutality?

In Los Angeles, for example, the LASPD has been accused of punching, pepper-spraying, physically assaulting, and sexually assaulting students. Dignity in Our Schools points out that many of these cases resulted in little or no legal action despite having witnesses and clear evidence. In May 2012, students protested LASPD abuses, highlighting a growing issue that concerns not just students, parents, and educators but also judges and the Department of Education. Legal advocates are concerned about the risks for civil rights violations as well as police harassment of students.

One attempt to address someof these issues came in the 2011 Supreme Court decision J.D.B. V North Carolina, in which the Court ruled that age is relevant during an interrogation. If a student doesn’t understand that she or he is free to go, police officers are required to provide an advisory, and work with the awareness that age can impair the understanding of proceedings. Encountering law enforcement in the principal’s office can be traumatizing -- particularly for some minority students who may have experienced police violence themselves or in their communities – and the ruling seeks to clarify procedures for student encounters with law enforcement. However, the effectiveness of the ruling has yet to be seen, and it will likely be tested in coming court cases involving students who felt they were not free to decline interrogation.

Another avenue of student protection is meant to come via School Resource Officers (or SROs, as they’re commonly known). Theoretically, these individuals have specialized training in handling public safety issues specific to school environments. Their primary role on campus is supposed to be as educators and mentors to reach out to students, particularly those identified as at-risk, but they also act in a law enforcement capacity.

In practice, however, the role of SROs in schools can vary considerably, and there are no specific standards for training that officers must adhere to in order to serve. Furthermore, hard national data on issues like precisely how many SROs there are doesn’t exist (though the Alaska Justice Forum estimates there are around 20,000 nationwide), which makes it even harder to hold them accountable when it comes to abuses of their powers, understanding their job duties, and conveying information to the public about their role in schools. Nevertheless, their numbers are demonstrably on the rise, especially in urban areas -- making their potential lack of training and accountability a critical concern.

Disparities In School Policing

Alongside concerns about civil rights violations come questions about the evenness with which such harsh punishments are meted out. As we have noted before, statistics on who is receiving citations from police in school and why are striking. In a major Department of Education civil rights survey, of students referred to the court system for disciplinary infractions, 35% were black, despite representing only 24% of enrollment. By contrast, 21% of arrestees were white, though 31% of enrolled students were white. Many districts also have an extremely high arrest rate for students with disabilities.