† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
COPs in Schools
by nancy a heitzeg
The school-to-prison pipeline – despite increased Federal attention to its’ persistence and marked racial dynamics — continues to be a major Civil Rights issue. Zero tolerance policies and a growing police presence in schools represent the two immediate contributors to the pipeline — which results in millions of suspensions, expulsions and arrests at school each year.
In 2012, The U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice committed to addressing disparities in the school suspensions and expulsions as a civil rights matter, including filing suit against the State of Mississippi for operating a school to prison pipeline in Meridian. In December of 2012 the first ever Congressional hearings on the school to prison pipeline were held and featured expert testimony that detailed both the scope of the problem and solutions including calls for decreased funding incentives for police, increased funding for counseling, support staff and educational resources, mandatory nation-wide data collection on suspension, expulsion and arrests at school, and support for evidenced-based solutions to end the persistent racial disparities that shape the contours of the pipeline. And finally, in 2014, Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division U.S. Department of Education released Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline , which for the first time in 20 years, called fzero tolerance policies into question and recommended suspension and expulsion be used as the last resort.
Despite two decades of research and recommendations for federal, state, and local remedies, the school-to-prison pipeline persists. Students, especially Black students and students with disability labels, are at particular risk for suspension, expulsion, restraint/seclusion and arrest at school. In fact, racial gaps have continued to increase even as efforts are underway to address the school-to-prison pipeline – the most recent Federal Discipline Data shows that Black students are 3.8 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, and 2.3 times as likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest as white students.
Interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline has largely focused on managing zero tolerance policies. Recent developments, including viral videos of in school police assaults on students, have turned the spotlight on police.
Police in the Schools
While suspension, expulsion and push-out have long been described as indirect contributors to the school to prison pipeline, the increased police presence at schools means more students are at risk of being arrested at school and direct funneling into legal systems. The idea of police in the schools (sometimes referred to as Security Resource Officers or SROs) dates back to the 1950s as part of an effort to connect police to community contexts. Until recently, however, the practice was rare with only 1% of schools reporting a police presence in 1975. The practice is now routine, in fact, SROs represent the fastest growing sector in police work. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates that there are between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs working in American schools today. The COPS Office has funded 7,000+ SRO positions in the past 20 years, but most officers are supported via state and local budgets.
This is made possible by legislation that merged in the same era as zero tolerance. The Safe Schools Act of 1994 and a 1998 amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 provided funding for in-school police forces or School Resource Officers. This was further buttressed in 1999, as the US Department of Justice “COPS in Schools” grant program dramatically increased the use of SROs. The COPS in School program was funded in part as a response to the highly publicized Columbine shootings, and included an expansion of multiple security measures including more police, metal detectors, security cameras, increased locker and person searches, canine units, wide spread availability and officer use of non-lethal weapons such as Tasers and pepper sprays, and in some cases, available SWAT teams. This, combined with the prevalence of zero tolerance policies, brought the practice of broken windows policing, i.e. the heavy targeting of low-level offenses, from the streets in to the schools
Although enhanced security measures were largely inspired by the school-shootings in predominately white suburban schools, they have been most readily adopted and enforced in urban schools. While almost half of the nation’s public schools have some degree of policing, nearly 70% of under-resourced, highly segregated urban schools report a police presence In addition to differences in the volume of police/security between suburban and urban schools, there. is a qualitative difference too in the purposes of police. In suburban schools, there is the sense that cameras are looking out and that police are there to protect students form external threats. The opposite is the case in urban schools that are majority Black, Brown and poor; here students themselves are the perceived threat and target of broken windows policing, surveillance use of force, and arrest.
Police in schools easily translates into more arrests, and these arrests are usually not for serious criminal violations. Studies reveal that a police presence significantly increases both arrests as well as the criminalization of minor misconduct; one three-year study of numerous schools in the same district, for example, found that the schools with police had nearly five times the number of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without a police presence. Each year, hundreds of thousands are ticketed and/or arrested at school for minor infraction, this at a time when juvenile justice is an increasingly punitive and legalistic. Research indicates that as many as two-thirds many be for “offenses” such as talking back to teachers, truancy or disorderly conduct.
A new study just released this week verifies the proliferation of police in majority Black/Brown schools.
“Far from an aberration, public schools serving primarily black and other nonwhite students that rely on more restrictive security—is quite common, according to a new research paper from Jason P. Nance, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Nance set out to find if there was a proliferation of school security following highly publicized school shootings like the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He discovered that many schools had intensified their security and surveillance of students, but the practice was not equally applied. Rather, schools with a preponderance of students of color within the school building were more inclined to adopt strict surveillance practices—metal detectors, locked gates, security cameras, random sweeps, and school police.
…as the portion of students of color in the school increased, so did the odds that the school would rely on more intense surveillance methods. In schools where students of color accounted for more than half of the student body, the probability of the school using a mix of metal detectors, school police and security guards, locked gates, and random sweeps was two to 18 times greater than at schools where the nonwhite population was less than 20 percent.”
The message to these youth is clear: they are seen not as students but as potential criminals.
Finally, Federal Guidance on Police in the Schools
Two years after the initial Federal recommendations on zero tolerance, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. and the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office released the Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) Rubrics. The new guidelines come with a checklist for revising current policies and writing new ones, and they are organized around five “action steps”:
- Create sustainable partnerships and formalize memoranda of understanding (MOUs) among school districts, local law enforcement agencies, juvenile justice entities and civil rights and community stakeholders.
- Ensure that MOUs meet constitutional and statutory civil rights requirements.
- Recruit and hire effective SROs and school personnel.
- Keep your SROs and school personnel well trained.
- Continually evaluate SROs and school personnel, and recognize good performance.
The need for these base-line common sense recommendations is frankly shocking. Armed police officers have been patrolling our schools with little oversight; just 12 states require SROs to take specialized training before entering classrooms. While some guidance here is certainly better than one, many youth advocates argue that the real focus should not be on alternatives to SROs, not not funding expended to make them more palatable. Dignity in Schools noted this in a press release:
“…we feel that continuing to fund SRO programs in schools does not create safer school climates. Communities across the country have been actively organizing for decades to push back against the policing of schools and demand real action towards creating safer school climates. ..
While we agree that any SROs or law enforcement that come into contact with schools should receive proper youth development training, the real solution is for school districts to invest in alternatives to SROs, allocating funds towards hiring and training restorative justice practitioners, counselors, social workers and peace builders. “
This too should be an obvious conclusion.: that educational funds should go towards educational resources as opposed to policing and punishment. But in our pervasive climate of racialized criminalization, such logical solutions cannot overcome the climate of fear.
The Smoke and Mirrors of SRO “Reforms”
The new Guidelines for SROs is at least an acknowledgement that the role of police in the schools needs attention . But like the Federal Guidelines on School Climate and Discipline, the recommendations may be followed or not, with plenty of room for local discretion. And, of course, the SECURe Rubrics fail to question the need for their presence of officers at all, hey are in the business of promoting – not reducing — police in the schools.
A closer look at the COPS approach to schools reveals that the vision is for an expanded role for police in schools. Police should serve not just law enforcement roles, but are encouraged to act as “informal counselors” or even educators who may teach classes. This expanded vision of the police role in schools relies heavily on the cultivation of the image of an “officer- friendly” who will serve as a role model. A recent New York Times article, “Minority Youths Mistrust Police. A Brooklyn High School Has a Plan”, discusses such effort in Brooklyn. It is a painful and illustrative read, as youth — majority poor, majority Black/Brown — participate in a such class with a probably well-intended officer. Many have been traumatized by police in their own lives, bu are expected to serve as bridge-builders to a broken police-community trust. And, the scant resources available must not towards educational materials, but rather to support of policing functions.
Beyond the Badge: Profile of a School Resource Officer
Ferguson, MO, This film was produced in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice COPS Office as part of the Not In Our Town: Working Together for Safe, Inclusive Communities Initiative.
This is the most disturbing narrative that emerges in defense of police in schools – one furthered by both school officials and certain community members – is this: The rift between the Black community and the police must be healed, and police must be in the schools so that Black children will love them, trust them, and maybe want to be them. (This approach is consistent –as co-editor Kay Whitlock points out, with a growing body of Koch funded work that suggests the problem is really perception of the police, not the structured and systemic violence they direct towards communities of color).
According to this surreal narrative, this, of course, is not the job of the police, or even Black adults but Black children, who apparently must not ever go to school for an education like everyone else purportedly does, but who must always be in service to the prison industrial complex. One way or another: as fodder for the school to prison pipeline, trainers for police, unwitting unconstitutionally interrogated suspects or snitches, recruits for the military and/or police academies.
No other set of children would be so summarily, systematically abused by those entrusted with their “education”. Yet for those with the Police in their Heads, these children are seen as nothing more than cops/criminals in waiting. We must envision for them, for ourselves, a world beyond policing and punishment.