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There’s a Movement to Defund School Police, Too

This piece originally appeared on Bloomberg CityLab.

Fueled by recent protests, some school districts are ending contracts with local law enforcement and instead turning to private security officers and counselors.

When students in Minneapolis, Denver and Oakland eventually return to their classrooms, one group will be notably missing from school grounds: the police.

After the killing of George Floyd and the resulting “defund the police” movement to divert resources to other types of community services, the Minneapolis School District was the first of several in the U.S. to end its relationship with the local police department. On June 2, the school board voted unanimously to terminate the decades-long contract, which costs the district $1.1 million per year to employ 14 school resource officers, or SROs, to monitor high schools and middle schools. 

The decision is part of a long national fight to de-police schools, with advocates arguing that the presence of law enforcement sends a disproportionate number of non-white students into the justice system at an early age. School police officers are assigned to monitor criminal activity like active shooters, assault, theft and trespassing; in some jurisdictions, they carry weapons and have the authority to arrest students.

“This is an issue that people around the country have been concerned about for years,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system. "We have the reality that schools are not safer, and we have these unintended consequences.” 

SRO programs have gained popularity in recent decades, partly as a response to mass shootings like the ones in Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. The National Association of School Resource Officers says they are one of the fastest-growing assignment divisions in law enforcement, with an estimated 14,000 to 20,000 officers currently active.

Reversing that growth trend still leaves the question of how to keep students and staff safe. Minneapolis schools have decided to hire  security officers, who are required to have law enforcement training (some as former cops). But unlike SROs, they are not active police officers who are allowed to carry guns on school premises or make arrests. Local activists worry, though, that these “public safety support specialists” are similar to “rent-a-cops” who will be harder to hold accountable for any inappropriate use of force against students. 

“The case these days is incidents of students behavior that used to be handled in the principal’s office are now too often referred to the police precinct, and that is just not the appropriate response for student misbehavior,” Schindler said. School fights, for example, are increasingly handled by police officers and resulting in student arrests, he said. 

In another instance, a white teacher in Seattle called the police last year about a Black fifth grader who allegedly threatened to beat her up, according to the teacher’s account to a 911 dispatcher. Seattle’s school board approved a one-year suspension of the partnership between Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Police Department. Calls for terminations of SRO programs have generally come from larger school districts with a mixture of schools in urban and suburban areas. 

Here’s what some other districts have decided to do when in-person classes return. All of them are initially starting the school year remotely because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

  • Oakland, California: The Oakland Unified School District is one of a few in the country to have its own police force, and the passage of the George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department in June marks the end of a years-long push by local advocates to dissolve the $6 million annual division. Previous efforts, including a March proposal to scale back the department by three officers, had been narrowly rejected by the school board. In contrast, the board unanimously embraced the new resolution, which will allow the district to do more hiring and bring back restorative justice coordinators that were laid off because of budget cuts during the 2019-2020 school year. The district is scheduled to hold a meeting on Aug. 21 to determine alternative safety plans, but in the interim will allow schools to call on the city police department in emergency situations. 
  • Denver, Colorado:  The public school district on June 11 voted to terminate its contract with the Denver Police Department, which cost the district $721,403 last year to assign 18 officers to middle and high schools. According to the resolution, the SRO unit will be reduced by 25% by the end of 2020, and all remaining officers will be eliminated by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The district will rely on its own existing security and safety department that includes 100 unarmed and armed security officers to protect campuses. All funds from the terminated program will be reallocated toward hiring mental health and restorative justice professionals.
  • Portland, Oregon: Mayor Ted Wheeler decided to remove officers from city schools, and plans to transfer the $1 million that funded Portland Police Bureau’s youth service’s division to a “community driven” program.

Critics of these removals say it is a rash emotional decision that is being misaligned with the work officers are doing in schools.

“To remove SROs from schools because a patrol officer murdered a citizen out in the street, to me, is the equivalent of removing all school psychologists because a clinical psychologist in a facility caused someone to die,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

He says that especially in an uncertain school year, their removal could leave students more vulnerable to acts of violence. “If I were an educator, I can’t imagine being willing to roll the dice to remove the armed protection from my campus for my students when we are coming off from the most significant break we have ever had with schools,” said Canady. He pointed to a 2019 study from the U.S Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center that analyzed 41 incidences of targeted violence in K -12 schools between 2008 and 2017 and found that 41% of the attacks took place within the first week of returning to school from summer and winter break. 

Schindler says that there is little evidence to show that police presence results in safer schools, but mounting research suggests that it contributes to increases in youth arrests. A report by the Urban Policy Institute found that high schools with larger populations of Black and Hispanic students had higher rates of police presence than those who didn’t.  And the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that Black students were 2.2 times as likely to get referrals to law enforcement or subject to school related arrests compared to white students. And new research from a forthcoming report by a criminal justice professor suggests school-based officers tend to protect students in white suburban neighborhoods while in urban neighborhoods they see Black students as threats. 

Black Lives Matter activists and some teachers unions are demanding that more school districts reallocate those funds to hire trained counselors and social workers. An American Civil Liberties Union report from 2019 shows that 90% of public schools fail to meet professional standards of having one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students, and at least one nurse and one psychologist for every 750 and 700 students, respectively. Some 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, social worker, nurse or psychologist present, according to the ACLU.

Canady agrees that schools need more counselors and social workers, but says they should be part of a “school safety team” along with SROs. In fact, the association recommends that there be at least one SRO at every school; otherwise schools would be dependent on calling 911 and dealing with officers without SRO training — which Canady says could result in more arrests. He added that in recent years, SRO training has put emphasis on areas like implicit bias, adolescent brain development, and adolescent mental health.

Even so, some of the largest school districts, like Los Angeles Unified School District and the Chicago Board of Education, are making changes. The Los Angeles Unified School District decided to cut its school police budget by $25 million — laying off 65 officers and  removing overtime pay. The district plans to reallocate funds to hire more counselors and social workers specifically at predominantly black schools. The Chicago Board of Education in June voted against ending its SRO program but recent changes announced by the Chicago School District will include the removal of police computer terminals from schools that could be used to look up students.  

“We are not under an illusion that all contracts are going to be terminated for the coming school year,” said Schindler. “If you are going to have them there, there should be some very clear guidelines and protocols in place to really restrict the type of activities that they are involved in.”

This piece originally appeared on Bloomberg CityLab.



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