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TN Spends Millions on Police at Schools. Will COVID-19 Prompt Changes?

This piece originally appeared on Public News Service.

The national spotlight on police violence has many reexamining the role of police officers in schools. Before the pandemic, nearly 2 million kids nationwide attended a school in which there was a law-enforcement officer on staff, but not a school counselor, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute.

Executive director at the Institute Marc Schindler said millions of federal, state and local dollars are spent on school resource officers, with little evidence of their value. He hopes the pandemic will give districts a chance to rethink their priorities for when kids return to classrooms.

"With schools being very, very hard-pressed from a budget perspective over the next several years, and when we know schools are understaffed already with mental health counselors, why would we make a decision to have law enforcement in schools when we don't have enough counselors?" Schindler said.

In 2019, Gov. Bill Lee signed Senate Bill 803, which provided $30 million in grants to districts across the state to fund school resource officers. With state and local school district funding combined, it's estimated Tennessee spends about $50 million annually on school safety.

Schindler pointed to recent research published in the Journal of Criminology and Public Policy which found the presence of police officers in schools doesn't reduce school crime - and might actually result in more incidents of weapon and drug-related activity.

"And there's no research that shows that having a police officer in a school makes it safer - which, of course, is the only reason that people believe they should be there. And there's research that shows kids feel less safe, and Black and Brown kids get referred to the justice system," he said.

The Justice Policy Institute report found schools with a resource officer had nearly five times the arrest rates for disorderly conduct as schools without an officer on campus.

Schindler added school staff tend to rely on law enforcement to handle even minor problems. A few decades ago, he said, they might have chosen to call a child's parents.

"What that has meant is that, far too often, behavior that used to be dealt with in a principal's office, now too often gets dealt with in the police precinct," Schindler said.

He noted the issue of escalating minor school infractions into the criminal justice system has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as a potential risk in employing police officers in schools.

This piece originally appeared on Public News Service.



Posted in JPI in the News

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