It wasn’t just students who returned to school this week after their holiday break. In school districts around the country, extra police officers are being deployed to provide a sense of security while policymakers weigh legislation in response to the massacre in Newtown, Conn.–proposals that could make police in schools an increased and permanent fixture in kids’ lives.
Politicians’ response to the deadly attack unleashed on Sandy Hook Elementary in December has been swift. This week, Vice President Joe Biden convened meetings for a White House task force to address gun access and mental health issues, and has promised to deliver a legislative proposal to the president by month’s end.
But several proposals swirling in the mix would double down on a trend of militarizing public schools. The National Rifle Association suggested putting armed guards in “every single school,” and more than one lawmaker has voiced support for such a plan. Days after the shooting, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced the Save Our Schools Act, which would authorize governors to use federal funds to call on the National Guard to secure school campuses. Boxer has also called for a $20 million increase from the $30 million already spent annually on school security measures like metal detectors and security cameras.
These proposals have been met with alarm by school communities in places like Los Angeles, where students are already too familiar with police. “We need a dramatic shift in how our schools operate,” said Manuel Criollo, the director of organizing at the Los Angeles-based Labor Community Strategy Center. “But safety is not equated with having more police in our schools or police as the primary response [to violence.]”
In the wake of the shootings at Newtown, advocates in communities of color in particular have cautioned that simply bolstering militarized security measures and the ranks of police officers in schools is a misguided approach to preventing violence. And they point to the ways in which the existing school security apparatus has helped fuel a school to prison pipeline for students of color in particular.
As of 2011, 68 percent of U.S. schoolchildren said police officers patrolled their school campuses, according to the 2011 school crime report (PDF) from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1999, that number was 54 percent. Last year, 70 percent of schoolkids went to schools where surveillance cameras were used, and more than half of students reported that locker checks were used as a security tactic. More than one in 10 U.S. students goes to a school with metal detectors on campus.
The rise of police officers and militarized security tactics in schools runs parallel with the rise of zero-tolerance school discipline policies in the 1980s and 1990s.
“What we know is that when you put police in schools they arrest kids,” said Jim Eichner, managing director of programs at Advancement Project, a national civil rights advocacy organization. “And what they arrest them for is not the things which necessarily go to school safety.”
What makes up the bulk of offenses that kids get punished and even arrested for are offenses that were once considered part of a young person’s adolescent development, Eichner said. Forget after-school detention. Because of zero-tolerance policies and increasingly militarized schools, a fist fight or talking back to a teacher can land students in jail.
And as it turns out, police officers don’t always make schools safer.
It’s as yet unclear whether armed school administrators or police officers stationed in schools would prevent a future attack like Newtown’s. In fact, in a joint report (PDF) conducted by the Secret Service and the Department of Education in the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings, researchers who evaluated 20 years worth of such attacks found that most school shootings “were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.”
The rush to place more police officers in schools is motivated by fear more than it is backed by evidence-based solutions, some experts say. “There are a lot of ways to prevent the spectrum of crime on school campuses,” said Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. “But in terms of how to prevent another Newtown … this event stands alone in terms of its severity. How do you prevent something that is so exceptionally rare?”
Police officers, immersed as they are in how to identify and suppress crime and often ill-informed about adolescent development and mental health, may be ill-equipped to address the needs of students who are vulnerable or prone to lashing out with violence. In the Secret Service report, researchers found that all school shooters were male, and a majority were white. But aside from that, no accurate profile of school shooters emerged. School shooters were unified, instead, by their difficulty coping with personal failures or deep losses. They tended to have an interest in violence or violent media; they tended to have a history of suicidal thoughts and they were often disaffected young men, but notably, “most attackers had no history of prior violent or criminal behavior.”
So if by stationing police officers in schools long-term we are saddling them with the responsibility of preventing a future Columbine or Sandy Hook shooting, we are perhaps asking too much of them.
“Police officers’ training and experiences just aren’t well-matched for what we’re asking them to do,” Kupchik said. “When police officers are integrated into schools they become assigned to a lot of issues that come up that might otherwise be defined as mental health issues or social welfare issues. But suddenly they’re redefined as criminal justice issues, and we’re looking at, ‘Is this an arrestable offense?’ rather than, ‘What does the child need?’ ”
In Los Angeles, where a new crop of police officers joined students in returning to school this week, community groups have come together for a month of actions to push back against efforts to make police a larger part of kids’ school lives. As it is, every day over 200 Los Angeles Unified Police Department officers are stationed in city schools. All public high schools are assigned one to two police officers each, even as the numbers of other support staff like guidance counselors and psychologists dwindle.
“We see that as a real trend, that law enforcement is starting to fill mental health and community outreach and school safety roles that were traditionally filled by other community members,” said Kim McGill, a longtime organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition.
“There is a lot of evidence that we can make schools safer, and ironically much of what we know goes exactly in the opposite direction of what we’ve done,” said Kupchik.
Kupchik argued that schools that do a good job of preventing day to day misbehavior and crime are schools that engage young people, and foster a positive social climate, and respond to tension and misbehavior with more than flatly punitive responses. Students who feel they can trust the adults around them and who feel respected in turn are much less likely to act out, and zero-tolerance policies tend to alienate kids from their school community and instill distrust in students, he said.
“One of the consequences of the way we punish kids,” Kupchik said, “is we undo the positive social environment which is our very best bet at creating a safe school environment.”