Report finds school policing disproportionately impacts black, brown youth
Advocates question rationale for more officers in schools
CASSANDRA BENSAHIH can’t forget the day seven years ago that her 11-year-old daughter was brought home from school in a police car.
A black middle school student in Worcester, she forgot to bring a homework assignment to class that day and was told she had to leave the classroom. When she refused, a school-based police officer was called and she wound up under arrest.
The result was a seven-day school suspension, probation for a year, a $150 fine, and four hours of community service, in an incident that is in her juvenile record permanently, despite efforts to expunge it.
“I send my child to school to learn. I didn’t send her to school to get a criminal record,” Bensahih said during an online forum Tuesday on school policing in Massachusetts.
The report, issued Tuesday by Citizens for Juvenile Justice and Strategies for Youth, said increases in the deployment of school police officers, which officials have said is in response to school-based shootings, have led to the disproportionate targeting of youth of color and students with disabilities for in-school arrests. During the 2015-16 school year, black and Latinx students made up 27 percent of the state’s public school student population, but accounted for 64 percent of student arrests.
The report said data from the US Department of Education show the presence of police in schools led to increased criminalization of young people of color for minor transgressions, like talking back or roughhousing, which would typically be dealt with through school detention.
“There’s considerable evidence that the presence of a police officer increases school-based arrests for low-level, non-violent behaviors that have traditionally been the domain of school disciplinarians,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, during Tuesday’s presentation.
Schools with police reported 3.5 times as many arrests as schools without police. Those students are also more likely to be in schools that have more police than guidance counselors, who advocates said traditionally deal with conflict mediation and student discipline issues.
In the 2015-2016 school year, 48 percent of Massachusetts high school students and a third of middle school students attended a school with a school resource officer, or SRO, the term used for school-based police.
Amaryllis Lopez, who graduated from Lawrence High School that year and now works for a youth advocacy group, said she regularly had run-ins with the school resource officer over dress code issues. Lopez said she didn’t always meet the school’s standard because she couldn’t afford multiple shirts and slacks.
The report questioned rationale for an increased presence of school-based police officers, saying there is little evidence that armed officers protect students from active shooters. In nearly 200 school–based shootings nationwide, police have successfully intervened only twice, according to a Washington Post review cited in the report.
In the aftermath of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Massachusetts passed the Gun Violence Reduction Act, which mandates at least one police officer in every school district, with limited grounds for seeking a waiver.
Decisions about school officers are controlled by the local police chief with input from the school district’s superintendent. Smith and other advocates want the law amended to give local governing bodies power to determine whether police should be in schools.
Scott Edmond, founder of Framingham Families for Racial Equity in Education, said he and other parents have launched an online petition calling for the removal of student resource officers in Framingham schools. “We need to imagine a world where black lives matter and the structures and policies support a positive and equitable learning environment in all schools for all students and their families,” said Edmond.
The report cited a 2020 study by Harvard University researchers linking exposure to school police violence to “persistent decreases in grades, increased incidence of emotional disturbance and lower rates of high school completion and college enrollment for Black and Latino students.”
The report pointed to several incidents of misconduct by police in Massachusetts schools in recent years. In a 2019 incident, a Springfield school police officer grabbed a 15-year-old student by the neck for talking back, slammed him against a wall, and falsely arrested him.
In a 2016, school resource officer David Pender suspected a Lowell student of having marijuana in his pocket, grabbed the student by the neck, struck him on the head, and threatened to spray him with mace. Pender served a six-month suspension without pay and was required to complete anger management training for using unnecessary force.Somerville Sen. Pat Jehlen asked during Tuesday’s session if there have been any improvements to the school policing issue since the Legislature’s passage two years ago of a sweeping criminal justice reform legislation. Smith said that the bill decriminalized disturbing a lawful school assembly, the offense for which Bensahih’s daughter was arrested, but added that reporting transparency is lacking.
“Most of our schools aren’t accurately reporting school arrest information, so how would we know what’s going on,” said Smith. A recent public records analysis showed that only 11 percent of school districts across Commonwealth are reporting school-based arrests as required in the criminal justice bill.