In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, communities are reassessing the way they use police. Some, like Minneapolis, have made at least some changes to their police use of force policies.
Minneapolis has also decided to suspend its school resource officer program, and other cities like Denver and Portland are following suit. For many activists, this is a big win.
They point to the overcriminalization of school discipline, where incidents that used to be handled by teachers are now brought to the criminal justice system.
They point to the “school to prison pipeline,” in which students of color are disproportionately put into contact with law enforcement over minor issues. And once someone has had contact with the criminal justice system, they are much more likely than their peers to have criminal justice contact again.
Racially disproportionate enforcement
According to the Anti-Defamation League, African-American students make up only 16% of the student population nationwide, but they account for 31% of those arrested on campus. White kids, on the other hand, comprise 51% of the school population but only account for 39% of school arrests.
Many activists have been fighting to get police out of schools for years, but there has been resistance from police unions and some parents who fear that removing police would make the students and schools more vulnerable. The National Association of School Resource Officers called Portland’s move to end its school resource officer program a “knee-jerk reaction” that could put students at greater risk. Yet, mass school shootings are rare and violent crime at schools has decreased significantly in the last 20 years.
There are also plenty of examples where students have been put at risk from the school resource officers themselves. For example, in 2015 a school resource officer was filmed flipping a girl to the floor and dragging her because she wouldn’t give up her cellphone.
There are approximately 25,000 police assigned as school resource officers in the United States. About 43% of all public schools have an armed law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The school resource officer model is supposed to provide a mix of law enforcement and counseling, mentorship and education. All too often, however, having a law enforcement officer on the scene invites a law enforcement response to what may be a matter of minor discipline. This is especially true for students of color.
In recent years, Portland’s students have been protesting for an end to the school resource officer program — even overwhelming a school board meeting at one point.
In order to disrupt the pattern of systemic racism and injustice that often follows police interactions with people of color, officials are beginning to listen to what students and the community have been saying. Is it time to rid our schools of police? Or can school resource officers really be trained better to avoid the disproportionate arrests of people of color while still providing security against incidents of violence like school shootings?