More police in schools is not the solution. Educators must resist the lure of ineffective solutions


It may be summer vacation for students, but many education leaders are once again spending their days thinking about ways to keep kids safe in the school year ahead. Rather than spending their time examining the relative merits of reading lists or science curricula, educators find themselves grappling with questions they weren’t trained to deal with.

It comes after 19 children and two teachers were killed at their school in Uvalde, Texas. Unfortunately, between dozens of solicitations from for-profit security providers and decisions from elected officials, education officials are under pressure to “toughen up” schools. They must resist.

The bipartisan Safer Communities Act recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden provides $100 million for the Community Oriented Policing, or COPS, program. It’s the same program that put more than 6,500 police officers in the halls in the decade following the Columbine school shooting.

Children are not criminals; police have no place in schools.

In 1975, only 1% of American schools reported having agents on site. In 2018, nearly 58% of all schools reported having at least one armed officer present during the school week. Much of this growth has been fueled by the more than $1 billion given by the federal government to states and school districts since 1999 specifically to expand police presence in schools.

Biden said the Safer Communities Act “is going to save a lot of lives.” But will he? Despite the drastic increase in the number of armed police in schools, since the COPS program began supporting police offers in schools, there have been 14 mass school shootings and 169 victims.

The presence of police in schools contributes to conditions that criminalize students – and drive the school-to-jail pipeline. Armed officers were on the scene in Parkland, Florida, and Uvalde, Texas, but they did not stop the shooters from killing children and destroying those communities.

Related: COLUMN: Mass shooting in Texas raises same old questions about how to protect American children

Instead of protecting students, these police officers rely on criminal procedures to address normal youth behavior that could be addressed by faculty through safe and effective disciplinary policies. During the 2017-2018 school year, nearly 230,000 students were referred to law enforcement and about a quarter of those students were arrested. And it is most often black and Latino children who are pushed deeper into the juvenile detention system, further alienating them from their schools, peers and communities.

Parents and educators have made it clear they want increased restrictions on access to firearms and tougher background checks. Instead, the solutions offered by lawmakers have always been to add more police to schools.

Research has shown that policing schools disproportionately affects children of color, LGBTQ+ youth, and students with disabilities. Black and Latino students, who are already overrepresented among suspended and expelled students, make up more than 70 percent of all students referred to law enforcement. While LGBTQ+ youth make up only 6% of the total youth population, they make up approximately 15% of youth in juvenile detention. In some states, students with disabilities were arrested nearly three times more often than their peers.

More than a million children attend schools where there are police but no counsellors.

And more than a million children go to schools where there are police but no counsellors.

Children are not criminals; police have no place in schools. Students deserve to be supported by caring adults trained in developmental psychology and restorative practices, not police officers trained in a military control model.

The bipartisan Safer Communities Act addresses the critical need for more mental health professionals in schools by providing $500 million for programs designed to recruit and train professionals who work with children. While this may not be enough to ensure that every child has access to a mental health professional, it is a step in the right direction.

But violence is a social phenomenon, not just a psychological one. Schools need to create environments where students feel safe and valued. When students feel supported and seen, they can connect with parents, teachers, and community members.

If these connections exist, students feel more comfortable sharing their experiences with depression, bullying, and other challenges that can cause antisocial behavior.

Parents, students and educators recognize this and advocate for these evidence-based solutions. They know that school-based social and emotional learning programs and the presence of mental health professionals can reduce factors that can lead to violence and increase students’ and staff’s sense of safety. A group of civil rights and education organizations featured the case in a report released after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Related: OPINION: Mom who lost her son at Sandy Hook says the answer to this senseless violence lies in our classrooms

Hundreds of students, teachers and parent groups recently came together to release a statement as part of the Dignity in Schools campaign. Their call to action is clear: schools need more support for the social, emotional and mental health needs of students – not more cops. They know that the ramifications of an increased police presence fall squarely on children of color, children with disabilities and LGBTQ+ children.

We need to follow their lead and start investing in initiatives that center and support children rather than those that traumatize and criminalize them. But it will be up to education officials to make the decisions that will make schools safe for all children, rather than allowing lawmakers to create a façade of security with metal detectors, surveillance and police.

Lori Bezahler is the president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundationa private foundation that supports communities of color in their fight for educational equity and racial justice.

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