At last week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, moderator Rachel Maddow questioned Hillary Clinton about the now infamous video of a white school resource officerScreen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.45.06 PM brutally assaulting and arresting an African-American girl. “Should there be police officers in school at all?” Secretary Clinton offered a nuanced explanation, touching on the need to use non-violent, non-confrontational measures in schools and the importance of trauma informed practices.

It was a seemingly clear question, but the issue of policing in schools is far more complex. Following the passage of the Guns Free School Act in 1994, school districts across the country began to implement zero tolerance policies, which criminalized minor disturbances in the classroom. Schools began over relying on school resource officers to enforce these new rules. In fact, from 1997 to 2007, the number of school resource officers grew by 38 percent with the help of the allocation of several hundred million federal dollars. Today, there are more than 43,000 sworn officers working in 84,000 public schools across the country. Some school districts, like New York City School District, have more police than a small city. This number is perplexing considering that rates of school violence are at record lows since data collection began in 1992.

By definition, these officers are a “career law enforcement officer, with sworn authority, deployed in community-oriented policing and assigned by the employing police department or agency to work in collaboration with school and community-based organizations.” In addition to policing, school resource officers also take on the role of mentor, social worker, guidance counselor, and drug prevention advisor to students. A national assessment of SRO programs found that 48 percent of SROs workweek is devoted to law enforcement activities, 24 percent on advising and mentoring, and the remainder on teaching programs such as D.A.R.E.

However, these officers may not be equipped to effectively execute these various duties. School resource officers generally have years of extensively law enforcement training, but only an average of 72 hours of training in counseling and education. The vast majority of states do not have laws requiring specific training for school resource officers. In the 12 states with such laws, the policies are often inconsistent and merely focus on how to subdue an active shooter. Almost no states require school resource officers to receive training on how to interact with children, as opposed to adults, or how to be a positive, nurturing counselor to students. As such, officers in schools are far more prepared to police the students rather than mentor them.

There is inconsistent evidence that school resource officers make classrooms safer. However, using officers in schools has documented negative effects. For example, the presence of school resource officers is positively correlated to an increase in arrests and referrals to the juvenile justice system. In Clayton country, Georgia, the number of referrals to the juvenile justice system increased from 89 referrals in the 1990s to 1,400 in 2004 after school resource officers were placed in schools. Schools with officers are also more likely to arrest students for minor offenses. In a study controlling for school poverty, researchers found that schools with an officer had five times as many arrests for disorderly conduct than schools without officers.

Racial disparities in school policing are disturbing. A study found that schools with larger minority student populations are more likely to suspend, expel and arrest student and less likely to connect them to psychological or behavioral services that can address the root cause of their behavior. This approach criminalizes students of color, disconnecting them from medical services that can transform into healthy, high-functioning adults. Even more alarmingly, these policies set children on a path to prison by introducing them to the juvenile justice system.

Federal and state legislators have been working to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Some localities have focused specifically on limiting the use of school resource officers. In 2013, the Denver public school system and police department signed an agreement to limit law enforcement involvement in student discipline. The same year, education, law, and government officials in Broward County, Florida, created a task force to create specific training requirements for school resource officers and limit their involvement in student discipline.

These interagency collaborations are promising methods to addressing the criminalization of the classroom. With new research documenting the ineffectiveness of school resource offices in ensuring school safety, it is time to reevaluate Rachel Maddow’s question: should there be police officers in school at all?


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