In recent years, there has been an increasing police presence in our nation’s schools. According to a report by the ACLU, an astounding 14 million children attend schools that have police officers on campus, but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. Although professional standards require at least one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students and one nurse and psychologist, for every 750, the ACLU found 90 percent of students are in schools that fail to meet these requirements.
Although many proponents of putting “school resource officers” (SROs) in schools argue that doing so protects school safety, research does not support this claim. SROs do not deter school shootings. The key to violence prevention, research suggests, is having trusted adults in the building who other children believe they can approach with information. Even if they were inclined to try, many SROs have little experience establishing these types of relationships with children. In fact, a full quarter of all law enforcement officers in schools surveyed by Education Week stated they had no experience whatsoever with kids before being assigned to their current positions.
A recent longitudinal study by researchers at the University of Maryland and Westat also shows that increasing police presence in schools actually increases the likelihood of criminal-like behavior and the likelihood of harsh disciplinary conduct such expulsion or suspension. This domino effect has devastating long-term effects on students’ mental health, achievement, and criminal behavior. Other research has reached the same conclusion. Unsurprisingly, police presence in schools disproportionately harms students of color and students with disabilities.
In these times of budget scarcity, where state and local budgets are stretched to the limit and education funding is regularly in peril, schools should no longer devote resources to employing SROs. Over the last twenty years, governments have funneled billions of dollars into putting police officers in schools, while counselor and social worker positions have been eliminated or, at best, remained stagnant.
It is therefore time to get police officers out of schools and use our money in a way that protects the health and safety of all of our students. School boards should:
- Eliminate law enforcement from schools: Law enforcement is not trained to handle the issues children and adolescents experience, and funding them takes needed money away from providing mental health and other social service supports.
- Develop a checks-and-balance system before any teacher or school official can request law enforcement at a school: Teachers should only be allowed to call on law enforcement when there is an imminent threat to someone’s physical safety. If there is no imminent physical threat, the problem must be handled by mental health staff, counselors, and school administrators.
- Develop a checks-and-balance system before any teacher or school official can refer a case to a prosecutor: Teachers or school officials should never refer anyone under 16 to an outside prosecutor, and instead, should handle all issues that arise internally. If the child is above 16, they should only refer the case if the child has caused or attempted to cause serious bodily harm, and they should support the child’s entrance into supportive diversionary programs.
- Invest money in mental health supports and after-school programs that lead to positive long-term outcomes: The money saved by divesting from SROs should be redirected into needed services. In addition, increased resources from federal, state, and local budget allocations should be devoted to mental health supports, social services, and evidence-based programming.
Invest in culturally competent mental health service providers: Students of color, for example, have different lived experiences than white children. It is critical that schools provide culturally competent counselors to help them address any problems they may be having.