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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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Such racial disparities are connected to larger social issues, particularly the controversial stop and frisk trend in New York, which has equally alarming statistics. In a study on stop and frisk practices, researchers noted that in 2011, 88% of the people stopped were innocent. Over 50% of those stopped were black, which is especially striking when you note that the city’s total population is only 25% black. 34% of those caught in stop and frisk sweeps were Latino. Whites accounted for a mere 9%. Tyquan Brehon, for example, was stopped 60 times before he turned 18, an illustration of a racial mismatch so severe that many black New Yorkers can expect to be stopped multiple times. Brehon’s case also illustrates another serious problem with police in schools; the fear of police created by his repeated stop and frisk encounters led him to stop going to school altogether because he didn’t want to encounter police there as well.

Just as the color of your skin can be dangerous on the street, it can also be dangerous in school halls with the introduction of police to school environments. Students of color and students with disabilities can already anticipate negative interactions with police over the course of their lives, as well as a greater risk of dropping out of school. When police are in the schools, it radically increases the chances of entering the justice system early, and leaving school before successfully obtaining a diploma.

None of this is to say that concerns about safety in schools are not legitimate; as the recent mass shootings in the United States have shown us, we are living in violent, dangerous times. The question about how to address these concerns, however, is still up in the air. Evidence doesn’t support the use of zero tolerance policies for school discipline, and some advocates have decided to actively push back against the use of police in schools.

Others, however, are not convinced that eliminating police from school environments entirely is necessary. Instead, what organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are calling for is a set of clear guidelines for the training and use of school police to ensure that they look out for the best interests of students and the school. By creating a framework for handling discipline infractions consistently and in environmentally-appropriate ways, schools can stay safe and functional, without pushing their students into the justice system.

For example, in Clayton County, Georgia, a model is being developed to show how policing in schools could work effectively. Under the protocol of this model, police don’t have to progress immediately to arresting students, and can instead work through a series of initial warnings and referrals to a conflict skills class. In a pilot study, the model radically reduced the number of referrals to courts, particularly youth of color, and its success has laid the groundwork for following up with similar programs in other areas.

Were such systems to be adapted in larger school districts like Los Angeles, it would require a radical rethinking of school policing along with dramatic policy shifts. The results, though, could be increasingly positive outcomes for schools as well as individual students. It’s clearly time to send students back to the dean’s office, not the police station.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.