By Eleanor J. Bader / Truthout
After footage of George Floyd’s May 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police went viral, people throughout the U.S. began to think about alternative ways to promote community safety.
Public schools that employ sworn law enforcement personnel, commonly called school resource officers (SROs), came in for particular scrutiny — and for good reason.
Now, however, numerous school districts throughout the country are rethinking their removal and some are bringing SROs back.
This is problematic for several reasons.
First, although no one knows exactly how many SROs there are because police departments are not required to report how many they employ to federal authorities, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) estimates that there are between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs in place nationwide. What’s more, the Regulatory Review, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, reported in October that over the past two decades, federal, state and local governments have spent nearly $2 billion on school policing.
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And for what? Kids, parents, teachers and education activists argue that having armed police in schools interferes with school governance, adversely impacts learning, and has a negative impact on students of color, students with disabilities and students who are gender nonconforming or LGBTQIA+.
It’s also worth noting that SROs are a relatively recent invention. After the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado left 15 dead in April 1999, the federal government disbursed $68 million so that armed police officers could be hired to patrol schools throughout the country. By 2018, after mass shooting incidents in Florida and Texas, an additional $965 million was allocated toward them nationwide.
In fact, as funding for SROs has skyrocketed, school shootings have also increased, rather than being deterred. Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed after 20 elementary school students and six teachers were shot to death in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, tracks gun violence in schools; by the group’s count, there were 2,032 school shootings in the U.S. between 1970 and 2022, with 948 taking place in schools throughout the country in the last decade alone.
Everyone agrees that this is extremely troubling, but there is considerable disagreement about how best to stop the violence.
Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, a former kindergarten teacher who now heads the Washington (D.C.) Teachers’ Union, says that she and the educators she represents are concerned about the uptick of violence they’ve seen since students returned to in-person learning after the COVID-19 shutdown. “Teachers tell me again and again that they’ve never seen anything like what they’re seeing now: students fighting, talking back, not listening or doing their work. We’re trying to focus on social and emotional learning, but we are badly understaffed,” Pogue Lyons told Truthout. “It’s stressful and just last week, one of our teachers was beaten by three students. He suffered a skull fracture.”
The assault, she continues, shocked everyone because the teacher is well-liked and is known to have good rapport with students. “He told me that he is not going to leave the job,” she said. “We need more teachers like him, who work hard to build relationships with students, but we also need more wraparound services to promote better safety. We need to hire and retain social workers, counselors and psychologists who can meet student needs.”
While few argue against this, Pogue Lyons adds that there is currently a push by some community members to bring SROs back into the D.C. schools that removed them in 2020. That action was precipitated by the realization that SROs often exacerbate tensions rather than curb school violence. But D.C. is not alone: The demand for school policing is being voiced in many regions of the country, from Alexandria, Virginia; to Montgomery County, Maryland; to Pomona, California — in response to a spike in stabbings, shootings and disruptive behaviors that have erupted since students returned to in-person learning.
Hashim Ali Jabar, co-director of Racial Justice NOW, an education advocacy group based in Silver Spring, Maryland, believes that returning SROs is misguided. “There needs to be buy-in from school administrators to create a culture that respects healthy learning,” he told Truthout. “Done properly, schools empower students. This promotes safety. A culturally relevant curriculum also supports safety; it is not just what you teach, but how you teach. If students don’t like school, it will impact safety. If they are not engaged, it will impact safety.”
Racial Justice NOW co-director Zakiya Sankara-Jabar agrees. “We did not just ask for the removal of police, but we asked for the money they saved to be used for culturally relevant mental health services. This is something the students were also asking for,” she explained. “Even now, after the decision to bring the police back into schools, the students have continued to demand more mental health services.” They’ve also continued to press for police removal.
Sankara-Jabar is clear that she believes bringing police back into schools is a mistake; nonetheless, she said that she is pleased that some operational changes have been instituted. Now called community engagement officers, or CEOs, school police will no longer routinely patrol school hallways, but will be on-call if administrators request their presence. District schools have also created Wellness Rooms where students can speak to a counselor to de-escalate tensions.
But, Sankara-Jabar continues, the proximity of police to students remains problematic since it allows the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline — a system that steers Black, Brown, queer and disabled students into the criminal legal system — to remain in place.
Worse, police can also be deadly if violence erupts.
As the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2021, a survey sample of 133 violent school incidents that took place between 1980 and 2019 found that having an armed officer present elevated the ultimate death toll. The researchers attribute this to “the weapons effect,” which posits that officers’ weapons may in fact increase aggression. According to the report, “prior research suggests that many school shooters are actively suicidal, intending to die in the act, so an armed officer may be an incentive, rather than a deterrent.”
Data also confirm that SROs contribute to the aforementioned school-to-prison pipeline. “Hall Monitors with Handcuffs,” a 2019 report written by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group, found that in that state, “African American boys with disabilities were more likely than any other group to be referred to law enforcement in connection to conduct at school.” Most of their arrests, the report continues, were for misdemeanors and included conduct like shoving a desk aside, storming out of a class or swearing.
Sarah Hinger, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, says that while such violations could be handled by school administrators, many people are comforted by the idea of having police on campus. “This speaks to the emotional anxieties that we, as a society, have around our children. Introducing police is a visible response to violence…. Feeling protected is important, and even when communities ask for police to be removed, they want something to be put in place to address challenging student behaviors.”
What that something is remains an open question — with long-term solutions ranging from increased funding for mental health services, to restorative justice and peace circles (a lengthy process that brings the victim together with the person who harmed them to discuss the impact of that harm), to expanded comprehensive sex education classes.
Litigation can also be particularly impactful, and Hinger and the ACLU have brought several lawsuits to curtail police abuse. Kenny v. Wilson, for example, successfully challenged South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” law, a policy that made it a crime to be “disorderly, boisterous, obnoxious, or disturbing” in school.
“This language makes all students vulnerable to arrest,” Hinger told Truthout, “but in practice, the law was disproportionately used against Black and disabled kids.” Although litigation in the case is ongoing, the law has been enjoined since 2020 and South Carolina advocates say that there has been a drop in arrests since the injunction against enforcement was issued.
The ACLU has successfully challenged similar “disturbing schools” laws in Massachusetts and Maryland, and attorneys have successfully litigated to end the Riverside, California, policy of putting students on “pre-delinquency probation” to preemptively curtail juvenile crime.
But, Hinger adds, lawsuits are never silver bullets.
In addition to legal work, Jonathan Stith, national director of the Alliance for Educational Justice, said that centering students of color is key to stemming school violence. “Districts never really consult students about what they want and need,” he told Truthout. “The hardening of school discipline post-COVID was part of the anti-Black youth sentiment of white backlash movements. The response to more and more young people, especially Black young people, getting involved in progressive social movements was and is to add police. This, plus everyday indignities like having metal detectors in school entryways, tells Black and Brown kids that they are dangerous, that they need police to control them.”
Letha Muhammad, executive director of the Education Justice Alliance, a racial justice organization based in Wake County, North Carolina, says that this idea rests on stereotypes about Black youth. “The reality is that SROs do not keep kids safe. They see young people as ‘criminals’ and are in the schools to make arrests. When we see students acting out, it’s our job — as parents, teachers and community members — to find the why of their behavior and get to them before they harm themselves or someone else.”
Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-director and co-founder of Chicago’s Healing to Action, sees ending gender-based violence as key to school and community safety. “Gender-based violence — rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment — is often used as a justification for putting SROs in schools. Of course, these things impact a student’s ability to learn and focus,” she says.
Still, she continues, it is a myth to think that by bringing SROs into schools, students will be safe from violence and exploitation. Instead, she and Healing to Action support expanding student access to comprehensive sex education. “Sex education that teaches about consent and bodily autonomy is one of the most important and radical tools we have to stop the violence in our schools, in our homes and in our communities,” she told Truthout.
Not surprisingly, the National Association of School Resource Officers disagrees. Mo Canady, the group’s executive director, told Truthout that he and NASRO believe that having trained and armed officers on site is the best, and perhaps only, way to ensure school safety. For him, it’s a question of training, which is why NASRO sponsors a 40-hour course — at a cost of $500 — that includes instruction in adolescent brain development, de-escalation techniques, and how best to interact with disabled children to minimize the use of restraints. “There is no one answer to school safety,” Canady says. “Securing a school is complex,” and requires teachers, social workers and students to work together with SROs to ensure safety. Furthermore, he says that simple things like making sure to secure the building’s perimeter, checking doors, fixing broken locks and monitoring entryways are fundamental to keeping everyone as safe as possible.
At the same time, neither he nor NASRO can explain why violence continues, even in schools with a large police presence, like Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.
“We need to figure out what happened to our children and their families during COVID shutdowns,” Washington Teachers’ Union President Pogue Lyons concludes. “We have to figure out a way to be proactive in a meaningful way and address racism and sexism in our schools and in our communities.”