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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.

Related: An analysis of achievement gaps in every school in America shows that poverty is the biggest hurdle

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.

Related: COLUMN: Black and Brown boys don’t need to learn ‘grit,’ they need schools to stop being racist

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 Reporta 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.”

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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...

Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. Hi,

    I am an SRO from the Midwest and I work at the high school level, while another SRO in my district works the middle school and elementary schools. I wanted to respond to your “OPINION: How one city removed the police from schools, and why others should follow” piece written by Elona Wilson.

    This piece was grossly misinformed and insulting to the great men and woman of law enforcement that serve as SROs. Not to mention there are minority police officers that work in these schools as well, we are not all white. I know this letter will likely fall on deaf ears so to speak, but I wanted to write it anyways and touch on the positive aspects and benefits that SROs present to school districts.

    First, not only do officers provide a physical protection for students, they are also a physical DETERRENT. I write that in all caps because in this piece, you don’t account for the mere presence of the officer, which absolutely deters crime. Angry parents who storm the school or get irate with school administration are confronted by a law enforcement officer who can de-escelate the situation. Students who physically assault each other or their teachers unfortunately face consequences for their actions, just like adults do. When do these students parents take any of the blame for how they act in school? Why are the SROs responsible for the school to prison pipeline when the officers aren’t the ones making these students deal drugs in school, or bring guns inside…or assault other students in the hallway? At some point, parents need to take responsibility for the behavior of their children. The SROs job is to redirect that child to keep them OUT of jail and on the right path, but that doesn’t mean you let students get away with committing crimes.

    Did you know SROs teach classes? We teach drug and alcohol classes to educate students on the negative effects of both, abuse, and the law surrounding these topics. It’s not to scare them, it’s to educate them so that they can make safe choices when they’re inevitably introduced to these substances. We also teach safe driving classes, insurance classes, how to report a crime and give the students another outlet if they don’t want to speak to the school administration about their issues. I am one of the first smiling faces students see when they walk in and one of the last ones they see when leaving.

    SROs are counselors (light edition). Students come to us for advice often, and we can give them resources they didn’t know were available. Often times when students are abused by parents, they come to us and we contact child services and we also complete an investigation. SROs handle abuse and neglect among students which leads to these children receiving adequate aid and sometimes removal from an abusive household, literally saving their life in some instances.

    My fellow SRO and I put on safety programs for the youth over the summer. 130 kids attend a one week program revolving around safety forces and receive classes, participate in sporting events and relays, win prizes, etc. These kids LOVE this program and they love interacting with police, fire, EMS, and other agencies that teach them throughout the week. Kids dunk officers in dunk tanks, race us on obstacle courses and compete in academic challenges. This all contributes to a positive view of law enforcement. We don’t want anyone to be scared of us, which unfortunately many parents have groomed their kids to be just that before we even come in contact with them.

    Many SROs take extended training beyond their normal scope to learn how to deal with younger adults. To be an SRO in my state, you must attend a week long training that covers handling juveniles, suicide prevention, de-escalation techniques, interviewing juveniles, etc. on top of additional trainings offered by the state almost monthly. To say we aren’t trained is just flat out wrong. It also doesn’t take extensive training to speak to people with respect, compassion, and a willingness to understand their side of the story, which cops do every single day across the country.

    I’d encourage Elona and anyone that agrees with this opinion piece to schedule a sit down with a local SRO. Maybe do an interview with them? Equality starts when we lift each other up, not cancel each other. How can we move forward when we teach our children negative stigmas regarding law enforcement and seek to get rid of the men and woman that serve the community they live in?

    We all want respect, love, kindness, and a safe place to live our lives. SROs contribute to that, they don’t harm it. Parents need to be better, teachers, counselors, community leaders all need to be better. We can all make a positive influence on America’s future adults by lifting each other up. I also saw your quote, “If you have a problem, be a part of the solution.” Positive law enforcement contacts with students are a part of the solution. When I intervene in a suicidal child’s life and get them medical treatment, that’s part of the solution. When I charge a kid for bringing a gun to school, that keeps the other children safe and hopefully redirects that kid before he kills someone and ruins his life forever.

    We are SROs. We make a positive difference every single day in young adult’s lives and this article fails to see that side of us. We are human too, we live for the community and to see these kids succeed. Take the time to talk to us before passing false judgement. Thanks for reading, have a blessed day.

    – SRO B Smith

  2. SRO’s present a clear and present danger to minorities. My child was sexually harassed by the middle school SRO. She had done nothing wrong and was following school dress code. The SRO then cited dress code as his reason of contact for my child. My child get good grades and has never been a disciplinary problem. She never even been in trouble. The school district superintendent principal all sided with the SRO. We live in a community consumed by racism over a hundred years. We as parents today see our kids being attacked by those who used to attack us when we were children. Complaints to the schools fall on deaf ears. Local police hold a racist stance tell us to prove it. Did we have a recording. Just adding to the racism in our community. I made simple request to have him distanced from my child and they continue to allow him to harrass her. He has harrassed her since august 2020. Which he continued without repercussions from the school. As they don’t want to be wrong. SROs are not needed and only make minorities go to school in fear. Even with a minority SRO they will usually fall into the norm to fit in rather than do what is right. As a child I grew up seeing white kids causing havoc and school staff saying oh they’re just being boys. But minorities for far less get police called job them and removed from school or drop out. Some of whom were honor roll students. My child is an honor roll student and I don’t want her future ruined by a SRO who really wont protect the kids. They are only there for a paycheck and to allow non minorities favoritisms. Even if a minority SRO is there they are highly unlikely to do what is right as it will jeopardize their career. Just as police are a danger to minorities in the street SROs are a danger to minorities at school. I don’t even no how to protect my child as even local law enforcement are racist and support this conduct. Minorities who are law enforcement will target their own race and be much harsher than their peers to prove they want to fit in. I never thought I would see my child attacked by an SRO. But I think about it and I was attacked when I was a kid by school staff and never said nothing about it as it was a common occurrence . The schools investigate themselves just as police do and say oh theirs no evidence that’s not what happened then to actually address a parents concern. We have seen SROs not save children when needed but run for their own safety. So why do we need SROs in schools other than to waste resources that need to be allocated to education. Just like local police need to have Their funds allocated to The education system. We build new jails hire more police. Place SROs in school waste vast amounts of resources rather then invest them into those who are struggling to make it. Maybe that kid who got in a fight has drug addict parents and has no one to love him. School is the brake from normal life. But SROs get involved treat them like a criminal then wonder why 20 years later they are arresting that kid again and again. School shootings and other events are so rare their is no real need for SROs. Counselors and social workers can do more help then an SRO ever could. Invest our resources don’t waste them. My child has seen the worst of police and fears all police to security guards. My child distrust them as they attack many of her family members for no reason at all including my child. SROs are an extension of a police state minorities live in. A kid who has seen police attack those around them will always have PTSD from it. They say they are supposed to protect you but they do not. You could follow all the rules and they will still say you didn’t follow something and at school makes minorities have to deal with unneeded pressure. They need to focus on their studies so they have a chance to fix all the unjust that has been done to their people. Many schools today are making the proper adjustments and hiring counselors and other educational staff to replace SROs. This way they can understand a child’s problem rather then punish them.

  3. I am an SRO from Arkansas, and I don’t appreciate being lumped in with an officer who from your account did not do his job the way it is supposed to be done. There is always three sides to a story, their side, your side, and the truth. You are entirely misinformed on the level of training we receive and what kind of training we receive. I am also an SRO at the high school level. I do not get involved with day to day discipline of students. I am here primarily as a resource and a help to them. Being a law enforcement officer is the last thing that I want to do while at this school. With that being said, I will do my job as a law enforcement officer if I have too. I will be the first to say that there are some bad law enforcement officers, but do NOT lump us ALL in with them. There is going to come a day when people like you keep on and the police will be done away with. What are you going to do and who are you going to call when you need help? I can promise you, most people are not going to run toward the sound of gunfire the way a police officer will. So, I am sure you will have to take care of the problem alone. Are you capable of handling yourself in an extreme situation to save your life? I doubt it. I am tired of being labelled as a murderer, and a racist for other people’s faults. I will protect my kids in my school district with my life. I will do whatever it takes to keep them out of the system, but there are just times that you just have to do your job and put them in the system. My job is to educate these kids on the law whenever they make a mistake. I take my job seriously and I can promise you the community I live in will fight to the death to keep an SRO in the school system. So, take your propaganda and shove it because no one really cares what your opinion is.

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