Role of Law Enforcement in Our Schools Can Be Supportive, Benign

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Marie WilliamsAs fall rolls around, parents and young people are preparing for a new school year. So too are teachers, school administrators and, in many places, school-based police officers and school resource officers (SROs). In its 2015 report on public school safety and discipline, the National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that there are more than 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police personnel working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. With such a significant presence of law enforcement within our educational institutions, the time is ripe to re-examine and reimagine their role.

In 2013-14, 13 percent of all public schools reported at least one serious violent incident, and 2 percent reported at least one physical attack or fight with a weapon. Fifty-eight percent reported physical attacks or fights without a weapon, and 56 percent reported threats of physical violence (9 percent of which included a weapon and 47 percent that did not). Overall, the rate of serious violent incidents per 1,000 students was 0.5.

Regardless of how one might answer the question of whether the presence of police officers in schools is, or is not, a deterrent to serious violence, it is clear that since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, we, as a society, have been unwilling to accept the risk of violence. But increasingly, school-based police officers and SROs are being charged, not only with addressing violence, but also with removing from schools those children who are deemed to be disruptive to the educational environment. Across the nation, children are subject to removal, and even arrest, not only for things they do but oftentimes for things they do not do, including subjective infractions such as “defiance” and “noncompliance.”

We all remember the 2015 video recording from a South Carolina school where a girl was put in a headlock and thrown to the ground by a male police officer who had been called because she refused a teacher’s order to put away a cellphone. Not only was the excessive force shocking, but later, when the totality of the girl’s circumstances came to light, the system failure was even starker. At the time of her arrest, she was undergoing several familial challenges and was in foster care. Though it is impossible in hindsight to say whether those challenges were responsible for her refusal to cooperate that day, what is clear is that in an ideal world, an inquiry into her personal circumstances would have at least been made.

Among the children excluded from schools each year, an estimated 50 to 75 percent have behavioral or mental health needs and some estimates say as many as 70 percent have cognitive or learning challenges that may make school settings unreceptive, or even hostile, places for them.  

Additionally, there are children whose home and family circumstances make it difficult to attend school on a regular basis, focus and perform up to standards when they do attend, or respond appropriately to teachers and other authority figures. Other children may be victims of abuse or other trauma, making them more likely to be triggered by the rules, strictures or approaches that are typical of the school environment.

At the very least, these data suggest that we may be overusing and misusing the most extreme tool at our disposal in an effort to preserve the peace in our learning spaces. In Philadelphia, following many years of experience in the police department, and after rising to the level of deputy police commissioner, Kevin Bethel began to suspect as much.

As deputy commissioner, Bethel and his officers found that too often, children arrested in schools were no real threat to the public and were certainly not “delinquent.” Instead, they were more likely to be “defiant,” “insolent,” “belligerent” and in some cases “disruptive”— adjectives that, in the most benign interpretation, could be considered accurate descriptors of normal adolescent behavior, but could also be seen as indicators of a need for supportive social services.

With the cooperation of law enforcement, the juvenile courts and, perhaps most notably, the Department of Human Services, in 2012, former Deputy Commissioner Bethel began to reimagine the role of law enforcement in the School District of Philadelphia.

After developing memoranda of agreement and a process with his partners, Bethel started small — rather than arresting students for minor, nonviolent offenses, school-based police officers and SROs would divert these children and give them and their families the option to receive case management and support services.

In the first academic year (2014-15) of the Philadelphia School Diversion Program, arrests declined 54 percent and there were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents in the schools. And just as important, through the program’s intervention, hundreds of children and their families gained access to services they might not otherwise have received.

The Philadelphia experience reinforces what we already know from the data — that children funneled into the juvenile justice system are often not “bad” but rather in need of services, and that, all too often, schools become a pipeline to prison rather than a pathway to success. By simply reimagining the role of law enforcement in our schools, and by refocusing their presence toward helping students and their families, we might just restore our youth, our schools and our communities along the way.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.