It may be summer break for students, but many educational leaders are once again spending their days thinking of ways to keep children safe in the coming school year. Rather than spending their time considering the relative merits of reading lists or science curricula, educators find themselves grappling with questions they have not been trained to handle.
This comes after 19 children and two teachers were killed in their school in Uvalde, Texas. Unfortunately, between the dozens of solicitations from for-profit security vendors and the decisions of elected officials, educational leaders are under pressure to “harden” schools. They must resist.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden provides $100 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS. This is the same program that put more than 6,500 police officers in hallways in the decade following the Columbine School shooting.
Children aren’t criminals; police officers don’t belong in schools.
In 1975, only 1 percent of U.S. schools reported having officers on site. By 2018, nearly 58 percent of all schools reported having at least one armed officer present during the school week. Much of that growth has been fueled by the more than $1 billion given by the federal government to states and school districts since 1999 specifically to expand the police presence in schools.
Biden said that the Safer Communities Act is “going to save a lot of lives.” But will it? Despite the radical increase in the number of armed police in schools, since the COPS program began supporting police offers in schools there have been 14 mass school shootings and 169 victims.
Having police in schools contributes to conditions that criminalize students — and drives the school-to-prison pipeline. Armed officers were on-site in both Parkland, Florida, and Uvalde, Texas, yet they did not keep the shooters from killing children and destroying those communities.
Instead of protecting students, these police rely on criminal procedures to respond to normal youthful behavior that could be addressed by school faculty through safe and effective disciplinary policies. In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 230,000 students were referred to law enforcement, and about one-quarter of those students were arrested. And it is most often Black and Latinx children who are driven deeper into the juvenile detention system — further alienating them from their schools, peers and communities.
Parents and educators have made it clear that they want heightened restrictions on gun access and stricter background checks. Instead, the solutions offered by lawmakers have consistently involved adding more police officers to schools.
Research has shown that policing in schools disproportionally affects children of color, LGBTQ+ youth and students with disabilities. Black and Latinx students, who are already overrepresented among students suspended and expelled, make up more than 70 percent of all students referred to law enforcement. While LGBTQ+ youth comprise only 6 percent of the total youth population, they represent about 15 percent of the young people in juvenile detention. In some states, students with disabilities were arrested nearly three times as frequently as their peers.
More than a million children go to schools where there are police but no counselors.
And more than a million children go to schools where there are police but no counselors.
Children aren’t criminals; police officers don’t belong in schools. Students deserve to be supported by caring adults trained in developmental psychology and restorative practices, not police officers trained in a military model of control.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act does address the critical need for more mental health professionals in schools by providing $500 million to programs designed to recruit and train professionals who work with children. While this may not be enough to ensure that every child has access to a mental health professional, it is a step in the right direction.
But violence is a social phenomenon, not just a psychological one. Schools need to create environments where students feel safe and valued. When students feel supported and seen, they can forge connections with parents, teachers and community members.
If these connections exist, students feel more comfortable sharing their experiences with depression, bullying and other challenges that can cause antisocial behavior.
Parents, students and educators recognize this and have been advocating for these evidence-based solutions. They know that school-based social and emotional learning programs and the presence of mental health professionals can mitigate factors that may lead to violence and increase the sense of safety for students and staff. A group of civil rights and education organizations made this case in a report published after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Hundreds of students, teachers and parent groups recently came together to issue a statement through the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Their call to action is clear: Schools need more support for students’ social, emotional and mental health needs — not more cops. They know the ramifications of an increased police presence fall squarely on children of color, children with disabilities and LGBTQ+ children.
We need to follow their lead and start investing in initiatives that center and support children rather than ones that traumatize and criminalize them. But it will be up to educational leaders to make the decisions that will make schools safe for all children, rather than allowing lawmakers to create a façade of safety with metal detectors, surveillance and police.
Lori Bezahler is the president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, a private foundation that supports communities of color in fighting for educational equity and racial justice.
This piece about police in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.