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.

Nick Ut/AP
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.

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.

“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.

While SRO programs have proliferated, juvenile arrest records have declined, says Mr. Canady, so he believes concerns about a national school-to-prison pipeline are overblown. (See NASRO’s report on this issue, “To Protect and Educate” at http://www.nasro.org/)

While Canady agrees students are mistreated by police occasionally, he says those examples reflect a tendency by a few urban areas to allow police into schools to operate without proper regard for how to best serve an educational setting.

The idea of placing more officers in schools is certainly a popular one, with the memory of the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut still fresh in people’s minds.

Hillsborough County, Fla., has already expanded the number of officers in order to place one at each elementary school, and legislators in several states, including Indiana and Arizona, are considering multimillion-dollar bills to expand school resource officers, the Associated Press reports.

Prince William County, Va., had been considering reassigning some officers away from schools to save $520,000, but reversed that decision and is now considering adding more such officers, according to the Manassas Patch news website.

Public opinion on the matter is mixed. Forty-one percent of voters support the National Rifle Association’s proposal to put armed police officers in schools across the country, and 50 percent oppose it, according to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling. In a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted Jan. 2-7, 64 percent of Americans support increasing a police presence in schools, while 29 percent oppose it.

In December, Sen. Barbara Boxer proposed allowing governors to deploy members of the National Guard to help protect schools, or to relieve police officers so they could do more school patrols.

On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden is expected to make gun-control recommendations to President Obama.

The coalition speaking on Friday emphasized that rather than having a knee-jerk reaction of spending more money on police, lawmakers should consider directing more resources to school counselors, psychologists, and programs that help young people manage conflict peacefully.

The issue brief released Friday by the Advancement Project, the NAACP LDF, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, and the Alliance for Educational Justice is available by clicking here.

Jonathan Brice, the School Support Network Officer for Baltimore City Public Schools, said during the call that adding well-trained officers is only effective in a broader context of creating a positive school climate, where students’ social and emotional needs are met and there is not a zero-tolerance disciplinary approach.

Despite the large shadow cast by mass shootings such as those in Columbine and Sandy Hook, the more “typical school shooting,” Brice said, is like what happened Thursday in Taft, Calif., in which a student allegedly burst into his classroom with a shotgun, fired at several people, and then was persuaded by the teacher to put the gun down.

The alleged shooter felt bullied by his targets, according to local law enforcement officials.

“The real issue around many of these shootings [is] a student [who] felt isolated, felt as if they had no one to turn to … and felt that their only recourse was to come to school and to attack someone,” Brice said. The solution is “about creating an environment that is respectful of everyone.”

Most such attacks “are stopped by staff in the school rather than an armed person,” added Gregory Thomas, former head of security for New York City schools.

“Investing in ongoing schoolwide practices to reduce bullying behavior, increasing after-school activities, and integrating community services and programs like peer counseling, wellness programs and other social supports, are just a few examples of how communities like Baltimore and Cleveland have been able to reduce school-based violence,” according to a set of school-safety recommendations issued recently by the American Federation of Teachers.

Both the AFT and the National PTA have also called for more gun-control measures such as banning assault weapons and large ammunition magazines, and for universal background checks for gun purchases.

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