One of the many criminal justice issues under the media spotlight right now is the problem of police officers in schools. These “resource officers” first began appearing in schools in the 1980s. Their presence has only increased in the wake of numerous school shootings. Now, it is common to see at least one police officer posted in middle schools and high schools around the country.
Police can serve as a valuable resource to schools if it is clear that their role is limited to protecting students and faculty from violence. Unfortunately, many schools have been using police officers to handle ordinary discipline problems that should be handled by school staff and administrators. The result is that already marginalized students are being treated as criminals, which often starts them on the track commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
According to an editorial in the New York Times, minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to have run-ins with school resource officers, who do not always respond appropriately. This problem was highlighted in a viral video taken in a South Carolina classroom last month. An African-American student was violently thrown and dragged by a white police officer simply because she was being disruptive in class. The officer was later fired, but it is unclear what would have happened (or failed to happen) if other students hadn’t been recording the violent altercation.
Resource officers have long been a presence in schools across Wisconsin, especially in cities like Milwaukee which have larger populations of African-American students. While it isn’t clear that resource officers are feeding the school-to-prison pipeline, statistics show that Wisconsin prisons and correctional institutions have disproportionately high percentages of African-American inmates.
To be sure, students need to be held accountable for behavior in school that puts others in danger or disrupts the learning process. But save for truly dangerous cases, discipline should only be handled by school staff and administrators. By treating certain students as criminals, schools and police are affixing a label to those students that could follow them the rest of their lives.