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Police in schools 'not the answer,' coalition says, urging broader strategy

Civil rights groups, educators, and law enforcement representatives say police in schools, 'while well-intentioned,' can end up causing other problems for students the police are there to protect.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2013

Los Angeles police officer Sgt. Frank Preciado with officer Wendy Reyes, right, keeps watch over children arriving at the Main Street Elementary School after winter break on Monday in Los Angeles.

Nick Ut/AP

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As communities around the country rush to place more armed officers in schools in the wake of the Newtown shooting, a coalition of civil rights groups, educators, and law enforcement representatives are trying to draw attention to the negative side effects that could result. They are urging Congress and the Obama administration to direct resources instead toward more comprehensive school-safety strategies.

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“More police are not the answer,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group that organized a press conference call Friday. “While well-intentioned … often officers end up arresting the young people they are there to protect … [and often it’s for] incidents that are not threats to safety.”

The heavy reliance on police in schools has a disproportionate impact on students of color – who are more likely to be suspended or pushed into the juvenile justice system for adolescent behaviors that should be corrected instead by educators, say groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

Pat-downs and tickets for truancy “make us feel unsafe and unwelcome in our own schools,” said Tanisha Dennard, a member of the Youth Justice Coalition in the Los Angeles area, during the conference call. As a student in LA, she said, she couldn’t afford bus fare and was not given the chance to explain her tardiness when she had to walk to school. Because her mother couldn’t pay the hefty fines issued at school by police, she ended up in the juvenile justice system.

Yet advocates of school-based police, often known as school resource officers (SROs), say that if they are properly trained, they are a valuable part of any school’s safety strategy, and expanding their role around the country can only help.

A resource officer isn’t just an “armed guard” at a door, but someone who builds relationships with students, helps resolve conflicts, and serves as a deterrent to crime and violence, says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) in Hoover, Ala.

While gun attacks on a school are rare, he points to the example of an SRO in California who ended such an attack by shooting and disabling a student who fired a shotgun through a school window.

In the 1970s there were fewer than 100 school police officers nationwide, according to Northeastern University criminology researchers. But with concerns about gang violence, school shootings, and terrorism in the past several decades, their presence has grown exponentially. NASRO estimates there are now about 10,000 SROs, the vast majority of them armed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants have helped fund these officers.

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