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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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Photo Credit: Alexander Raths via Shutterstock.com

 

In spring 2012, student organizer Malik Alaya began rallying students to respond to proposals for school closures in his Bronx district. While passing out flyers in a hallway, he was spotted by the school’s safety officer and sent to the dean’s office. Whatever happened inside that office led to the decision to summon a representative of the New York Police Department’s School Safety Division, and Alaya was ticketed for his actions. Less than two weeks later, he received another ticket for filming police officers on a subway platform while they conducted a stop and frisk.

Does his punishment seem excessive? At the very least unfair? Consider it a trend: Alaya is just one of thousands of kids nationwide now forced to interact with police over matters once handled by the principal’s office.

In Texas, Diane Tran was sent to jail for missing school in May 2012. In Los Angeles, A.J. Johnson received a citation for fighting in school in October 2011, although his father maintains that the case wasn’t very well investigated. Houstonite Erlin Zavala has already been in court twice for skipping school. And it’s not just students who are at risk: after high school junior Michael Proulx filmed an instance of police brutality in his school, the journalist who published the video was brought up on charges of wiretapping and is now facing a possible 21-year prison sentence.

Increasingly, young people in America are getting caught in the collision of “zero tolerance” laws and growing concerns about school safety – and paying an irrationally high price for it. A series of school shootings and threats in the 1990s, including the Columbine massacre in 1999, radically changed the concept of “school safety” in the United States, and as administrators and law enforcement officers determined that campuses were no longer safe places, a new, more militarized approach to monitoring schools began to take hold. It may be hard to recall but this wasn’t always so; 40 years ago, it was sometimes difficult to get police to arrive on campus at all. Now, they are everywhere.

As a result of this increased police presence on campus, discipline infractions that used to be handled by school officials are now pushed directly into the court system, where students are charged with class C misdemeanors before a judge, creating a juvenile record for the youth in question. Meanwhile, judges are finding their courts clogged with such cases, slowing down the justice system during the school year. And perhaps worst of all, more and more students are ending up in jail for minor infractions, not to mention dropping out of school entirely, rather than staying in the classroom.

That’s a radical departure from traditional methods of handling these kinds of infractions, where police might only be called to a school in cases where students would endanger themselves or others. Today, though, there’s often little need to summon police to the premises – because they’re already there. Some schools have officers from the local police department stationed inside their doors, while other schools now boast their own dedicated police departments. Los Angeles United School District subscribes to the latter plan; in 2010, the Los Angeles School Police Department had at its disposal 340 sworn officers empowered to arrest people and perform other law enforcement actions, along with another 147 non-sworn civilian school safety officers, in over 400 full and part-time schools.

But is this growing trend toward police intervention actually making our students safer? As it turns out, the answer is far from clear.