Why Police Don’t Belong in Schools, and How to Begin Removing Them

In the wake of recent murders of Black Americans by cops, school districts across the country are ending contracts with police. Police-free schools have been a long-standing goal for racial justice organizers, but some officials insist that “school resource officers” (SROs) stationed on campus play a crucial role in school safety. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she won’t be removing cops from public schools, despite pleas from aldermen, protestors and the Chicago Teachers Union to sever the CPD’s $33 million contract. “Unfortunately, we need security in our schools,” Lightfoot said.

For decades, the specter of school shootings, which are typically carried out by white men and white male young adults, have prompted the American government to devote hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to “security.” That “security” comes with additional costs to the welfare of students. Since Black students are disproportionately targeted by police, Black youth are perpetually paying the price for white shooters’ crimes.

How Do Police in Schools Threaten the Safety of Students of Color?

SROs don’t make most Black students feel safer, and this research comes as no surprise. Police violence against students of color — particularly Black students — is well-documented. Cops have been filmed committing heinous acts like flipping a student’s desktasing a student and zip-tying a six-year-old.

Even though they’re placed in public schools, SROs, like all cops, are trained to detain and arrest. According to the ACLU, Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested in school than their white female peers, and Black boys with disabilities suffer an arrest rate five times the rate for all students.

How Do Police in Schools Create a School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The “school-to-prison pipeline” describes how young people become incarcerated due to “zero tolerance” policies and an increasing number of police in public schools. Students of color are already disproportionately disciplined in schools, particularly Black students, who are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Students who have been suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of school, which increases their likelihood of being incarcerated in the future.

When schools outsource discipline to SROs, students are more likely to be arrested for minor forms of disobedience instead of being disciplined by schools internally. This funnels youth directly into the juvenile justice system, and once inside the system, it’s hard to get out. Black youth are more likely to be tried in adult courts and incarcerated in adult facilities than non-Black youth. Even when they’re tried in juvenile court, an MIT study found that 40% of youth who went into juvenile detention ended up in prison by the age of 25.

Don’t We Need SROs to Stop School Shootings?

While constant police presence on campus might might make some students and teachers feel safer, it’s still unclear how much protection SROs actually offer, especially when it comes to active shooters. School shootings, while devastating and something that shouldn’t occur at all, are still rare. America is home to more than 100,000 schools and sees an average of one school shooting per year. School shootings are also hard to anticipate and typically end within minutes. In an active shooter situation, it’s unlikely that school officers could interrupt violence before it starts. According Texas State University’s ALERRT Center’s analysis of school shootings between 2000 and 2015, most school shootings ended without cops or armed guards returning fire, either because the shooter had been subdued by unarmed staff or the shooter had committed suicide.

The presence of police or armed guards also doesn’t seem to deter school shooters from opening fire. Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, had an armed security guard stationed outside the building when a gunman entered, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. Despite multiple SROs stationed at Santa Fe high school in Texas, a shooter still killed 10 students and injured 13 more before officers could intervene.

When the overwhelming response to school shootings is increased police presence, here’s the message schools are sending: the constant presence of police — who may or may not be able to protect students and staff in the rare event of a school shooting — is worth the ongoing destruction of Black student lives.

What Do Schools Need Instead?

Addressing students’ mental health is a critical part of preventing violence, including school shootings, but schools across the nation are devoid of student care and violence prevention measures. According to an ACLU report, 1.7 million students are schools with police but no counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students. In 2016-2017, only three states met the recommended ratio. ACLU’s report also found that less than three percent of schools meet recommended ratio of students to social workers, and more 67,000 schools reported zero social workers serving their students.

Clear pathways for conflict resolution are also crucial for student health. Groups like Dignity In Schools recommend that schools replace cops with restorative justice coordinators, who can help students resolve conflicts and build school community by facilitating group dialogue. These programs are underfunded and rare, but they work. According to the Chicago-based  organization Alternatives, Inc., schools where Alternatives coaches trained staff and students in restorative justice experienced a 31% drop in reports of misconduct, a 50% drop in out-of-school suspensions and 43.8% reduction in “severe incident reports.”

While hiring SROs is often a well-intentioned means of protecting students and staff, police are punitive — not preventative. Schools prioritize the “safety” of white students over the lives of their Black and Brown peers, and when schools budget for police and slash budgets for student health advocates, all students and staff take the hit.

What Can We Do To Get Cops Out Of Schools?

Donate to outside organizations that help students prevent and resolve conflicts without police.

Put pressure on your local school board to remove SROs from schools.

Participate in a protest. Write emails. Make phone calls. Support demands from students, teachers and parents who want police-free schools.

Vote for your school board, your superintendent, your mayor and your governor.

Most school boards don’t reflect the populations of the schools they serve. Sometimes school board members are appointed by mayors, governors and other government officials (vote for those, too!), and when school boards are elected, they’re largely determined by white voters. Put people of color in positions of power. If you live in one of the thirteen states that elect their superintendent, vote for a candidate who prioritizes counselors, nurses and restorative justice coordinators in schools.

To learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline, check out these videos, this report from Project NIA and and this resource list from the ACLU.

Malic White is a Chicago-based writer, comedian and actor. Follow Malic on Twitter and find upcoming shows on Malic's website.

Malic has written 27 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. When I was a teacher I once had to step in between and de-escalate a white security officer who was getting into it with a (honestly very easily-goaded-into-violence) student who was definitely on the spectrum and needed way more mental and emotional health care than the school could give him.

    I might have saved his life? This student had been locked up before. And probably wouldn’t hesitate to throw blows at the officer. And we know what would have happened if he did. Tell me why the officer was yelling at, bigging up his chest at, and taunting a 17 year old kid. Wtf.

    Cops out of schools!!!

  2. Thank you for this article. I keep thinking about it. My kids go to my old schools, but now there are cop/school resource officers. I have had mixed feelings about it, but this article helped clarify changes that need to occur in our schools to better support our kids, especially our kids who are not white.

  3. Cops in schools is one of these American things I can’t even fathom, because it’s so far out of my experience growing up. The logical respons to school shootings would be to get rid of the guns. Instead there are more armed people brought in.

    Hope you can make some positive changes. Sending you some international support.

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