When America’s schools reopen, police don’t belong there

Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, many Americans have been demanding that we change the role law enforcement plays in our daily lives. Demonstrations in the streets have called for disinvesting in police and, critically, reallocating resources into communities that historically have been affected by systematically racist policies. 

One practice that has garnered significant criticism is stationing police in schools. A growing chorus of community members and local leaders across the country is calling for an end to school resource officers (SROs), some of whom have been linked to racially-biased outcomes and an increased flow of youths into jails or detention programs. In the past six weeks, more than 40 school districts have eliminated or suspended SRO programs.  

Congress has taken note of these calls to remove police from schools — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), along with Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), recently introduced the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act. The bill would eliminate any federal dollars being spent to support SRO programs. 

Since 1999, the Department of Justice has allocated $1 billion to fund 46,000 SRO positions. Currently, as many as 20,000 sworn law enforcement officers spend some or all of their time on the grounds of schools. While the Department of Justice defines SROs broadly — not just as law enforcement, but also as counselors, educators and emergency managers — their training and daily duties are largely focused on law enforcement. 

One might hope that SROs could transcend traditional policing roles, but some research suggests they spend much of their time and resources on traditional law enforcement activities. Proponents of police in schools claim the officers are necessary to keep students and staff safe, but statistics show our nation’s schools are safer than ever. In fact, research has found that while SROs may increase crime reporting, they fail to meaningfully impact school safety. And, at the same time, SROs can exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline — where behavioral problems result in arrest, rather than calling a student’s parents — which can result in serious, lifelong consequences. 

Many school-based arrests are for trivial behavior that used to be referred to the principal. One study found that youths in schools with SROs were twice as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than those in schools without SROs. An officer’s discretion plays a substantial role in converting ordinary youth-like behavior into something requiring an arrest. This outcome is especially pronounced for students of color. During the 2015-2016 school year, there were 51,780 school-based arrests; Black students comprised 36 percent of those arrests, despite being only 15 percent of the student body nationally.  

In a time when schools are experiencing record low rates of violence and victimization, why are we spending money for police to potentially criminalize expected youth behavior — such as, in one instance, a student throwing a paper airplane? We can take school safety seriously without relying on disproportionate responses to typical childhood behavior. 

Our willingness to accept SROs as providers of basic school services exists in a society that often overloads law enforcement’s day-to-day operations with situations better-suited to mental and behavioral health professionals. Hiring someone with counseling and mentorship training, which many SROs do not have, would much better serve the needs of students and could be more cost effective than SROs. The bill proposed in Congress does just that by establishing a $2.5 billion grant to invest resources once partially dedicated to SROs toward building capacity for counselors, nurses, social workers and trauma-informed personnel. 

Think about how you want your child’s next in-school mistake to be handled. Would you trust yourself to manage their discipline? What about their teacher or principal? A counselor? Would you want these in-school disciplinarians to have a taser, or another weapon?

American policing, as an institution, has fallen victim to a pervasive mission creep. We’ve come to rely on law enforcement to address a litany of social problems, including school discipline. Why would we want the same institution that is responsible for investigating murders and handling hostage situations to handle our children’s school safety and discipline? How can we trust an institution, some of whose members apparently cannot distinguish peaceful protesters from domestic terrorists, to take care of our kids? 

The culture of contemporary policing, one that seems to celebrate violence, doesn’t belong in our schools. 

Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and previously served as interim director of the District of Columbia’s youth corrections agency. Charles Parkhurst, a master’s in criminology candidate at George Washington University, contributed to this article.

Tags Ayanna Pressley Chris Murphy Elizabeth Warren Ilhan Omar Law enforcement School resource officer School-to-prison pipeline

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