We are living in extraordinary times. Nationwide mobilizations in the aftermath of too many police killings have renewed an important conversation about police accountability and the role police play in our lives. Even further this conversation has called into question the role police play in the lives of our children, specifically in school buildings. We too often assume that the presence of police in schools is synonymous with safety. It is NOT. The reality is most parents and caregivers know very little about the role police play in their kids schools.
We do know that the physical, social, and emotional health of children in schools is critical to success and safety. Yet, 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors, 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers, and 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. Many states report having two to three times as many police officers in schools as social workers, and five states reported having more police officers in schools than nurses. This is unacceptable.
Of course we ALL want schools to be safe, but did you know that there is NO evidence that increasing the number of police in schools actually improves school safety? Instead, what we find is that in the vast majority of cases police officers do exactly what they are trained to do, which is detain, handcuff, and arrest.
School counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists are trained to support children, and in schools where these professionals are able to provide services we see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates. These same schools also see lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. The data on this is clear. The presence of school-based mental health providers doesn't just improve outcomes for students, it can also improve overall school safety.
It is important that we understand how we got here. Police first appeared in schools in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1990’s – following the tragic shooting at Columbine High school and the War on Drugs – that we saw a shift to increased surveillance, metal detectors and other security measures in public schools, including a rampant growth of the number of police, often called “school resource officers” in schools.
At the same time we see school budgets continuously cut, leaving too many schools without the resources needed for our most vulnerable students.
Funneling money into more school police and other practices that criminalize students is not the answer to creating safe school environments. Researchers across the country, including the Consortium on Chicago School Research, have found that relationships between students, parents, and staff are more important in making a school safe than increased security measures and still we see too many examples of police in schools escalating incidents that might have been resolved by a trip to the principal’s office. For immigrant and undocumented students, bringing police into the school building can lead to deportation for themselves or their families.
From 2013 to 2018, over 300,000 children under the age of 12 were arrested in the US. The stories are heartbreaking. A six year old in Orlando having a temper tantrum, placed in the handcuffs and driven to a juvenile detention facility. A high school student body slammed down to the ground after asking if he could call his grandmother to pick him up. Even more concerning is the same racial bias we see in policing in communities of color is the same bias we see from police in schools -- Black students represented 15% of the total student enrollment, and 31% of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested, and these racial disparities are on the rise.
National and local research consistently demonstrates that the presence of police in schools serves as an entry point to the school-to-prison pipeline and disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous and LatinX students; students with disabilities; and students in need who are furthest from opportunity. We can take an important step to dismantling the school to prison pipeline by investing in a students' success and in student support instead of a culture of criminalization in our schools.
Together we can END the criminalization of kids in schools and break the school to prison pipeline. Sign on to call for an end to the regular presence of law enforcement in our schools and an investment in student support.
Thank you for taking action.