Armed police officers could become relics in many schools as local education officials cancel long-standing contracts with law enforcement amid calls for defunding police forces. But some members of the community wonder who will keep students safe.
School boards in Oakland, California; Denver; and Milwaukee have voted to end mutual aid agreements with local law enforcement agencies that provided work for police officers on campuses.
In Seattle, the public schools superintendent said the presence of four armed security officers on school premises “prohibits” many students and staff from feeling safe and welcome.
“While the focus of the School Emphasis Officers has been to build relationships and provide assistance to youth in crisis, the unintended consequence of their presence in our buildings could bring more distress to our young people,” Superintendent Denise Juneau said in a letter to the community late last month.
Since June 30, public schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, no longer have a contract with the city’s police force. The school board voted to develop an “interim safety” plan and eliminate school resource officers.
“Many of them see them as a hostile presence, as a traumatic presence, as a reminder of what they don’t want to engage with in schools, even if there are other students and staff who see them as someone who could keep them safe,” said school board member Steve Marchese, who introduced the motion last month.
But residents also are concerned that school safety could be reduced, particularly among children of color.
“Nine times out of 10, it’s going to be a Black child who is murdered in that school,” Tyrone Terrell, president of the African-American Leadership Council of St. Paul, told The Washington Times. “We have guns in the schools, we have guns in the parking lot and we have guns one call away. … The SROs are crucial to the schools.”
Police first were brought into schools in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s to improve ties between youths and law enforcement. Their numbers on campuses dramatically increased in the 1990s thanks to millions of dollars from a Justice Department grant program that coincided with the 1999 Columbine High School massacre of 12 students and one teacher.
By 2016, nearly 60% of U.S. public schools reported having a security officer who patrolled campuses at least once a week, and almost three out of four high schools, especially in urban and suburban areas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Those best positioned to respond to acts of violence are those with specialized training such as school resource officers who are generally sworn law enforcement officers,” according to the final report of the President’s Commission on School Safety, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in December 2018.
That same year, at Dixon High School in Illinois, Officer Mark Dallas was credited with saving lives by chasing a gunman out of a school moments after hearing shots near a morning graduation rehearsal in the gymnasium. The 19-year-old gunman was found unfit to stand trial.
“I could not be more proud of the police officer and the way he responded in this situation,” Dixon Police Chief Steve Howell told reporters after the attempted attack. “Because of his heroic actions, countless lives were saved.”
Policing advocates say the goal of school resource officers is not merely to have armed sentinels but to have officers involved in student mentoring and to foster “positive relationships” with youths. Rather than contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline, school resource officers have helped contribute to a decline in rates of juvenile arrests in the U.S., they say.
“From a weapon being brought on campus to trespassing, there are other violent activities that can occur on a school campus, both internally and externally,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “By having an SRO there, you’re getting an officer who is engaged who understands the unique dynamic that happens on a school campus.”
Police presence in schools has increasingly come under scrutiny in the past decade, especially after high-profile incidents such as the handcuffing of a 4-year-old in Virginia and the dispatching of two dozen officers to a water balloon fight at a North Carolina high school.
Now, in the aftermath of the police-involved deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, critics are making the case that schools are too chummy with police forces that they say disproportionately target young people of color.
“We don’t want either,” Katrina Feldkamp, with Legal Services in New York City, said in a teleconference last month announcing a “road map” toward schools without police. “We would like to see the removal of both school safety agents and police from our schools.”
The track record of police on campuses is fiercely contested from both sides using a wide range of studies. Violence in schools dropped dramatically during the late 1990s and 2000s when police presence grew, but reports show high referral rates to juvenile law enforcement agencies, especially of Black students.
Blacks represented 13% of the student body but 53% of offenses for disorderly conduct from 2012 to 2015 at a school in Texas, according to a study by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center.
Teachers also represent some school safety personnel, but calls are growing louder to disband armed units in schools.
The American Federation of Teachers called last month for the “separation of school safety from policing and police forces.” When the superintendent of Portland Public Schools in Oregon announced the phasing-out of school resource officers by next year, the local union cheered. “We need to re-examine our relationship” with the local police force, the union said on Facebook.
The teachers union in Boston passed a resolution demanding the reinvestment of $4 million spent on law enforcement agents to go to mental health services and restorative justice practices.
Not every school district is dropping cops. The Chicago Board of Education narrowly rejected ending its $33 million contract with the city’s police department. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s board rejected cuts to spending on police after a marathon 12-hour meeting last week.
For many school officials, the back-and-forth over the role of law enforcement doesn’t end once a contract is severed.
St. Paul schools Superintendent Joe Gothard told the board last month that he had received a “thousand emails” on whether to keep or remove the district’s seven school resource officers at the city’s high schools. Most opposed the security measures, he said.
Mr. Gothard said 60 of the district’s buildings did not maintain school resource officers before last month’s vote. With no more officers in schools, he said, the district will nevertheless rely on law enforcement.
“It may not be in a formal way of a contract,” Mr. Gothard said during a school board meeting, “but we rely upon our police department for a lot of things in our community. And there will be times where they are going to be called upon, the men and women of this city who work for the police department, to provide services for St. Paul Public Schools.”