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

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.

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.

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.


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