Last Thursday’s discussion on school safety seemed to foreshadow the threat that emerged late in the day on Friday. Fortunately it turned out that the threat to shoot students at Harper Junior High was a hoax, but the recent events at Parkland, as well as other schools, have put people on the alert and frayed already frazzled nerves.
On Thursday, the administration pushed the issue of school safety forward, expediting it following events at Parkland. The board moved to direct staff to initiate a number of upgrades. While the rhetoric from the parents seems a bit disproportional to the real threat, the biggest area of concern was the direction by the board to perform a cost analysis of adding a second school resource officer from the Davis Police Department.
The addition of school resource officers – a phenomenon that has been exploding since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting – has long concerned civil rights and civil liberties advocates. Critics believe that, rather than creating safer campuses, they have facilitated the school-to-prison pipeline by effectively criminalizing behavior that should have been handled as more basic discipline issues.
A 2015 article by US News cites: “Thanks to inconsistent training models and a lack of clear standards, critics contend school officers are introducing children to the criminal justice system unnecessarily by doling out harsh punishments for classroom misbehavior.”
“Is this is an effective intervention strategy? It’s really not having the impact we want to have,” said Emily Morgan, a senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, a nonprofit that works to strengthen public safety and communities.
“School policing is tied to that broken windows, tough-on-crime era, when we were all panicked about the juvenile supercriminals that were going to start running the streets,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of the advocacy group, Texas Appleseed. “They didn’t emerge, obviously.”
The ACLU in 2017 released a 95-page report: “Bullies in Blue: The Origins and Consequences of School Policing.”
The biggest problem that they cite is that “the scrutiny and authority of law enforcement are turned upon schoolchildren themselves, the very group that’s supposed to be protected.”
The problem is that introducing police onto a campus results in the criminalization of young people for matters that traditionally have been handled better as school discipline.
The ACLU is concerned that such practices have “justified the targeted and punitive policing of low-income Black and Latino youth.”
This started as a response to the war on drugs and gang interdiction efforts, but it has been expanded in the post-Columbine world.
The ACLU writes, “Later, fears of another Columbine massacre misguidedly drove the expansion of infrastructure that ensured the permanent placement of police in schools. As this report outlines, the permanent presence of police in schools does little to make schools safer, but can, in fact, make them less so.”
School Resource Officers are police officers and they are specifically identified as part of the problem: “[P]olice officers assigned to patrol schools are often referred to as ‘school resource officers,’ or SROs, who are described as ‘informal counselors’ and even teachers, while many schools understaff real counselors and teachers.”
They add, “Their power to legally use physical force, arrest and handcuff students, and bring the full weight of the criminal justice system to bear on misbehaving children is often obscured until an act of violence, captured by a student’s cellphone, breaks through to the public. Police in schools are first and foremost there to enforce criminal laws, and virtually every violation of a school rule can be considered a criminal act if viewed through a police-first lens.”
Moreover: “The capacity for school policing to turn against students instead of protecting them has always existed, and it continues to pose a first-line threat to the civil rights and civil liberties of young people.”
The ACLU findings mirror findings from 2011 from the Justice Policy Institute, “Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools.”
Author and JPI Associate Director Amanda Petteruti stated that “schools would be better served by using scarce resources for programs and personnel that will have a long-term positive impact on both school safety and student outcomes.”
Their chief findings show “school resource officers needlessly drive up arrests for behavior issues that can, and should, be dealt with inside the school.”
“Students are needlessly arrested for offenses as minor as disorderly conduct, which can include swearing at a teacher or throwing spitballs,” noted Ms. Petteruti. “SROs lead to discipline applied without the filter of school administrators or policies. This in turn leads to a troubling disruption of the educational process through suspension and expulsion, the result of which is some students who never become re-connected to school.”
The report finds, “Unnecessarily arresting students is counterproductive to the education of our nation’s youth. High school students who come in contact with the courts are more likely to drop out. Two-thirds to three-fourths of youth who were confined in a juvenile justice facility withdrew or dropped out within a year of re-enrolling; after four years, less than 15 percent of these youth had completed their secondary education.”
A 2015 article in the Atlantic found that few school resource officers are trained to work with kids and only 12 states mandate that school resource officers receive student-specific preparation – although California is one of them.
“All officers are getting a certain level of training that they’re required to get as police officers,” said Nina Salomon, a senior policy analyst at the CSG Justice Center. “The additional training that we’re talking about—on youth development, on working with youth, on prevention and de-escalation—hasn’t typically been received by the majority of law enforcement that work with youth inside a school building, or that are called to campus.”
Susan Mizner, the disability counsel for the ACLU, points out that both “school staff and officers should know the SRO’s job is to keep schools safe from a threat, not to engage in routine discipline.
“We can’t have that line blurred,” she said. “Just because they’re there doesn’t mean we use them. That’s the first level of training, and that’s probably the hardest piece of training for both school staff and school resource officers.”
Ms. Mizner also points out that when officers do become involved, training in de-escalation techniques is critical. That, she said, includes diversion, not direct commands for compliance.
The bottom line that school board members and administrators need to recognize is that having police in school can have consequences. While the district should be rightly concerned with the environment and the threats that have emerged this year, we need to also recognize a fundamental fact: Davis schools are safe – far safer than most.
As the presentation on Thursday demonstrated: “DJUSD does not qualify for safety grants due to low City crime rate and few incidents of school violence.” That should tell us something. School safety concerns are real and legitimate, but putting police on campus is a recipe for problems.
To me it suggests we should seek other, less intrusive remedies first, before considering adding police to our campuses.
—David M. Greenwald reporting