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PORTLAND, Ore. — A year and a half ago, a student of color called me in the middle of the school day and told me that a School Resource Officer (SRO) had harassed her for taking a trip to the bathroom with no hall pass.
Also in the halls were four white students, whom the SRO ignored to wait for the student of color outside the bathroom. When she exited, he followed her back to her classroom with a hand on his gun.
She was in tears as we spoke, sobbing because the place where she was supposed to feel safe and protected to focus on learning was now putting her in danger.
While protesters march for racial justice and Americans call for an end to police brutality, we must not overlook the role that our schools play in our nation’s systemic injustices. Search “School Resource Officer brutality” online, and you’ll find pages and pages of complaints about excessive force written by kids who haven’t even reached high school.
No children should have to walk school hallways afraid that a gun will be pulled on them by an SRO before they reach class.
That’s why as a community organizer for Stand for Children and a product of Portland Public Schools myself, I welcomed the district’s decision earlier this month to discontinue the presence of SROs.
Portland’s move follows one by Minneapolis a few days prior, whose public schools ended their relationship with the city’s police department in response to public pressure following the killing of George Floyd.
Schools nationwide should follow suit.
Beyond the known stories of excessive force, we must seriously examine the disproportionate arrest rates and excessive punishment of Black and Brown students. When we consider that SROs are officers of the law — not of the school — who often have little to no training in working with children, it’s less shocking that the statistics parallel those of their colleagues policing our streets.
How did we get here?
School Resource Officers first appeared in the 1950s, but their numbers increased dramatically after school shootings in the 1990s. I know the fear of our babies becoming the victims of another tragic school shooting — and of course we have worried, and we continue to worry. The worst can happen, and I want our children to be safe. But I am not willing to gamble the daily safety and well-being of our Black and Brown students on the off-chance that our School Resource Officer is one of the small percentage of SROs able to effectively stop an active shooter.
Protecting our students means letting go of the things that we want to work and accepting that they do more harm than good. In 197 instances of gun violence at U.S. schools since 1999, SROs intervened successfully in only three instances, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That’s a 1.5 percent success rate.
Are we willing to sacrifice the safety and well-being of our Black and Brown students over a program this ineffective? I, for one, am not.
Protecting our students means believing them when they tell us they’re in danger.
In addition to making our students feel threatened and unsafe, SROs are an integral part of the school-to-prison pipeline that harms so many of our youth. As our country reckons with a long and continued history of systemic racism, and communities take to the streets to protest police brutality and reinforce that Black Lives Matter, we must consider the many paths that have led us here. The presence of SROs is one of those paths.
Forty-five percent of public schools nationwide had at least one SRO in the 2017-18 school year. This figure rises to 70 percent at the high-school level. These officers are not school administrators responsible for counseling troubled students away from misbehaving — they are armed members of local law enforcement. Yet, rather than respond only to the rare violent episode, they are routinely involved in situations that counselors, teachers or social workers are better suited for.
They’re often called for minor classroom issues like a student talking back to the teacher or being caught with no hall pass. Students found with small amounts of drugs or who have serious behavioral issues face harsh punishments under “zero tolerance” policies. This often leads to suspension or expulsion. It is here that we find our students stuck in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Over-punishing our students enters them into a vicious cycle. One study found that being expelled or suspended made a student nearly three times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system within the next year. Children should be focused on learning, while we focus on their safety and well-being. Instead, we call in armed officers to punish them, isolate them from their peers, separate them from school and enter them into the criminal justice system — for some, before they even reach 9th grade.
For many, it’s an impossible cycle to escape.
Arrest data reveals that juveniles who are exposed to the criminal justice system are more likely to drop out of high school and even less likely to attend college than their peers who aren’t. For those who beat the odds and do apply to college, roadblocks abound. Questions about one’s criminal history are part of the application process at 55 percent of public colleges and 60 to 80 percent of private colleges in America. If students beat the odds and gain acceptance, financial aid is limited for those with criminal records.
I’d like to point out that the above data is representative of students of all races. For Black and Brown students, though, the negative effects of having SROs in schools are disproportionately higher. Middle-school suspension rates are double the national average in urban school districts, with schools often suspending more than a third of their Black male students.
Portland Public Schools’ decision to remove SROs is a big step toward justice, and all districts should do the same. For Portland, this change didn’t happen overnight.
Students have been speaking out and advocating for the removal of SROs for a long time. In Portland, students even created an Instagram account dedicated to documenting their own stories around the issue. The account is nearly two years old. Personally, I have been fighting for this since I became a Portland Public High School student in 2010, and I know it was a battle long before then.
So, where do we go from here?
Reach out to the clubs of color and individual students of color in your schools. Listen to them. When determining how to solve this — or any — issue, ensure that you are in conversation with students, and that the policies and changes you advocate for are community-driven and student-centric. When students tell us they need change, we must listen. Their experiences are real. Let them take the reins, but don’t tokenize them.
By eliminating SROs, we can redirect funds to hire counselors, bring in community-based organizations and provide additional supports focused on guiding all students on paths to bright futures.
This story about School Resource Officers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Elona Wilson is a community organizer for Stand for Children, Oregon. A strong believer that students are our future and thus the thing most worthy of our investments, Wilson centers her advocacy on ensuring that equity is not just a lens put on during times of planning but is an intentional practice every moment of every day. Wilson was raised on the idea that “if you have a problem, be a part of the solution.”