Police aren’t needed in schools

Use of officers undermines educational mission

IN THE AFTERMATH of George Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis has canceled its contract with city police to patrol its schools. Portland and Denver have acted similarly. As we engage in conversations regarding structural reforms to dismantle American apartheid, we have to consider not only how police should be used in schools, but confront the more fundamental question of whether their deployment in schools is justified at all.

Since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, the narrative has been that police, identified as school resource officers when they work in schools, are needed to keep students safe. The Justice Department’s “Cops in Schools” program has given out over $1 billion to hire school police and states have allotted another billion. But instances of violence in school had been declining significantly, as had the general juvenile and criminal crime rates, since the 1993-1994 school year, according to the National Center of Education.

As Alex Vitale observes in The End of Policing, the “explosion” in the number of police in schools is “one of the most dramatic and clearly counterproductive expansions of police scope and power” in the last 20 years. Vitale suggests there is no evidence that school resource officers have reduced crime, and there are only a few instances of preventing a gun crime (these involving threats).

Today close to half of all schools have school resource officers and over 90 percent carry firearms. School resource officers are deployed in 71 percent of high schools.  While many officers act as mentors and advisors, the overall approach of relying on armed police has led to a massive increase in the number of student arrests that undermines the educational mission and, as Alex Vitale has observed, fuels the “extension of the larger carceral state feeding what has come to be called the school-to-prison pipeline.”

In 2000, over 3 million students were suspended nationally, and over 97,000 were arrested. The great majority of suspensions and arrests were for non-violent behavior and over two-thirds of the arrests involved black students. The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund says high rates of suspension and arrests of youth of color continue. Special education students with behavior disorders and the LGBTQ+ population are also suspended and arrested at disproportionately high rates. Students who do not graduate high school are much more likely to be arrested later and many serve jail or state prison sentences.

The first school resource program was in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s. Police were placed in elementary and middle schools with the goal of improving relationships between students and their families.  It is sadly ironic that while the Supreme Court has emphasized that youths are not little adults, the acceleration and evolving role of school police now reflects a much more retributive attitude. Urban schools of color which have never had a school shooting have been a focus of school policing.

I attended a New York City school of over 5,000 students but we didn’t have police patrolling our halls.  New York City’s current contingent of over 5,100 school security agents makes it the tenth largest police force in the country. Studies have shown that schools with resource officers have nearly five times the arrest rates of students without resource officers.  A recent Boston study reveals that black students comprise approximately one-third of the school population but two-thirds of school-based arrests.

The great majority of school-based arrests have been for conduct that had traditionally been handled by teachers and principals. In an article I wrote in 2015 for the American Bar Association, I posed the rhetorical question, Are We Criminalizing Adolescence?  James Bell, who heads the Hayward Burns Institute, characterizes the arrest of youth for normative behavior as the abolition of adolescence and part of the social control and surveillance of youth of color. Professor Elizabeth Hinton explores similar themes in From The War On Poverty To The War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.

I have participated in collaborative conversations to develop memoranda of understanding between schools and educators designed to draw the line between conduct which should be dealt with by schools versus behavior that requires court referral. However, the question of whether schools actually needed police was not part of the dialogue.

The American Bar Association has said that police should be in schools for a time-limited period to address specific safety needs. If police are to be deployed, the bar association recommends the drafting of memoranda of understanding outlining the scope and relationship of school police and educators. This recommendation is aspirational as the orthodoxy of having police in schools at all has rarely, if ever, been challenged. Massachusetts juvenile justice reforms require each school district to develop a memorandum of understanding with police based on a template which is similar to the bar association’s recommendation, but the requirement lacks any enforcement mechanism and not all agreements are faithful to the template.

Police lack the skills to effectively interact with emotionally dysregulating students or deal with routine disciplinary matters. There are police mental health and diversion programs, but these are inadequate substitutes for educators using proportional discipline, restorative justice, and emotional and social learning that supports positive youth development. Zero tolerance is intolerance.

Meet the Author

Jay Blitzman

First Justice, Massachusetts Juvenile Court
Twenty-six states have no legislation requiring school resource officer training, only eight have training in de-escalation techniques, and only four have training in mediation and restorative justice.  Defunding police initiatives does not have to mean the abolition of all policing, but it should include investing and redirecting limited resources to support children and families in the schools and communities where they live.

Boston spends about 10 percent of its budget on the police and advocates are urging that $40 million be taken from the Boston Police Department budget and directed towards health care, housing, and job creation. There may be occasions where police are needed but they can be stationed at a school’s perimeter to keep out intruders or called on when needed. Schools should not be militarized zones; they should be centers of support and nurturing. I conclude, as does Alex Vitale. “We must break completely with the idea of using police in schools.”

Jay Blitzman is a retired juvenile court judge.