Skip to main content

After Parkland, Schools Upped Police Presence. Has it Made Students Safer?

This piece originally appeared in the Pacific Standard.


In the year since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that killed 17 people and wounded five, the reaction by both state and federal legislators has largely followed the pattern of past mass shootings: increased spending on policing and security equipment in schools that research shows does not make students safer—and that disproportionately harms non-white, disabled, and queer students.

"Since Parkland, there's been a lot of discussion from government entities around increasing law enforcement presence in schools, and that's unfortunate. It doesn't help students, and there are better ways to create safe environments," says Marc Schindler, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a non0profit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

As of October, 20 states had guaranteed $450 million in school-security spending in the wake of Parkland, according to the Associated Press.

Less than a month after the shooting, Florida rapidly passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, which requires that a police officer—or "armed school employee"—be stationed in every school in the state. The bill also included some relatively minor additions to gun-control restrictions, including the banning of bump stocks. Only 17 percent of the bill's $400 million funding was allocated to mental-health programming; the majority went to increased security and surveillance.

Neighboring Georgia took similar action soon after, adding $16 million more to annual spending on school security. And, last month, Governor Brian Kemp announced a program allocating $69 million for "school security grants." The plan places a mental-health counselor in each school, but Georgia's spending also focuses on security: Every school will receive $30,000 to spend on police officers, metal detectors, and security cameras, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The plan also commits $500,000 to an anti-gang law enforcement initiative.

In Kentucky, where two students were killed and 18 wounded in a school shooting a month before Parkland, the state legislature is currently considering a school safety bill that creates the statewide position of "school security marshal," criminalizes threats and hoaxes called in to schools, and focuses on training of police officers therein, according to theLouisville Courier Journal. The bill also promises schools more mental-health counselors and police officers for schools "as soon as practicable as funds and qualified personnel are available." No funds have been made available to date.

"What we've seen with Parkland is what we've seen as a response to most, if not all, school shootings: politicians as a reaction call for more security measures, especially more police," says Judith Browne Dianis, the head of the Advancement Project, a racial justice non-profit that released a massive report last fall on the effects of police in schools.

Currently, about half the students in the United States attend a school with one or more full-time police officers stationed in the school, according to Cleveland State University social work professor Christopher Mallett, whose research focuses on juvenile justice and schools. States and school districts vary widely in the terminology—and specifics of bureaucratic oversight—for their police in schools. Many are called by euphemistic names like "school resource officer" (SRO). Some are employed directly by the school, while others are provided by the local police precinct, or the county sheriff.

Mallett says that, although police officers are slightly more likely to be present in schools in areas that experience more crime, police in schools are now found just about everywhere. "In the last 10 years or so, there's been a shift to our suburban schools that now have school resource officers in their communities," Mallett says, emphasizing that there is no evidence that police in schools prevent mass shootings or other crimes. "There's no connection between the number of officers in a school and the risk of a tragedy happening, because they're so infrequent." (The likelihood of a student in the U.S. being killed by a school shooter is one in 614 million, according to the Washington Post.)

The first permanent assignment of police in schools was in 1953 in Flint, Michigan, and similar programs expanded throughout the 1960s and '70s. Still, by 1975, only 1 percent of schools in the U.S. reported a permanent police presence, according to an Advancement Project report.

However, in the '90s, legislation began to increase funding for police in schools, beginning with the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act. That law created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which provided over $750 million in funding for 6,500 new police officers in schools between 1999 and 2005 alone, with much of the increase following the 1999 shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School. "Columbine was a big moment," Schindler says, of police in schools. "There have been increases since then—though it's leveled off a little bit—but after each high-profile school shooting, the amounts go up."

Dianis notes those increases almost always occur in schools unaffected by school shootings. "Columbine's school district did not opt for more police. Newtown [the site of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School] did not act to add more police," she says. "So you have school districts that weren't affected by mass shootings, but broadly believe in the criminality of students of color."

School suspensions and expulsions have increased fivefold since 1980, an increase that has come with the decades-long increase in school policing; disciplinary proceedings initiated by SROs, as with the justice system outside of schools, are implemented more harshly and more frequently with students of color. Not only are black, Latino, and low-income students punished at much higher rates than their whiter and wealthier peers, but they're also more likely to be arrested. Disabled students, a 2016 American Civil Liberties Union report on California schools found, are three times more likely to be arrested than their peers. School policing is "still very disproportionately harming students of color, students with learning disabilities, and the students who identify as LGBTQ," Mallet says.

Although school policing and other security measures harm many students without increasing safety, they do provide one powerful benefit: making the loudest voices feel safer, according to Mallett. "In suburban, white schools that have had positive relationships with police, parents and teachers feel safer," Mallett says, "and it doesn't affect crime or school shootings in a positive way, but it doesn't make it worse."

However, that feeling of safety doesn't translate to students, even white ones. Schindler notes that research shows that a heavy police presence in schools actually has the effect of making kids feel less safe. "The most important thing is to identify where they feel comfortable behaving with adults, where they can share concerns, and where they can be identified if they need help," he says.

Despite some of the security increases post-Parkland, Mallett thinks school districts—if not state legislators—are finally beginning to better understand how to make schools more hospitable and safe for students. "They're finally starting to see the light, that you don't have to just stick police officers in school," Mallet says. "The schools are realizing, 'holy shmoly: we're kicking everybody out, and it's not working.'"


This piece originally appeared in the Pacific Standard.

   

 

Posted in JPI in the News

JPI's work

Through a combination of groundbreaking research, communications strategies and technical assistance, we inform advocates, policymakers and the media about fair and effective approaches to justice and community well-being.

Learn more »

Contribute

We envision a society with safe, equitable and healthy communities; just and effective solutions to social problems; and the use of incarceration only as a last resort. Please help us end the #IncarcerationGeneration with a generous contribution.

Contribute »

Sign up for our newsletter