Milwaukee. Portland. Denver. Oakland. All over the country school districts have either ended their contracts with police for school security or are in the process of doing so, recognizing that what they entered into for student safety has ended up harming students of color to an unacceptable degree.
Consider Chicago’s Mather High School, where 16-year-old Derrianna Ford studies. The school pays the Chicago police $33 million for three school resource officers. It has 1 counselor. One. The nurse is part-time, only there one day a week. “Even if you hurt yourself, they’re calling the SRO,” Ford said to the Washington Post. “The first thing you should call is a nurse—but our nurses are only here Tuesday. If you’re not hurt on Tuesday, it’s your loss.” That leaves her, and the administrators at her school, wondering if this allocation of resources makes sense. Particularly considering the harm that they can cause, disproportionately to students of color. According to federal data, in the 2015-16 school year, 31% of arrests in schools were of Black students. They made up 15% of the school population. There are no studies showing that Black students break school rules more frequently that white students. And those arrests and interactions can be violent.
A 2015 cellphone video captured a white officer putting a black teenager in a chokehold, then tearing her from her desk and throwing her to the ground at a high school in Spring Valley, S.C. The deputy was called when the student would not put away her cellphone. Other videos have shown officers pepper-spraying middle-schoolers to break up a fight and tackling an 11-year-old girl to the ground.
There are videos and reports from all over the country, and students of all ages have been subject to this kind of violence. Resource officers are more likely to be in schools with majority Black and Hispanic student populations, and by 2014 66% of high-schoolers, 45% of middle schoolers, and 19% of grade schoolers had police in their schools. That hasn’t proven to make schools safer or improve school discipline, a Congressional Research Service report found in 2013. A Washington Post analysis in 2018 found that having school police on the ground “rarely made a difference in how school shootings unfolded.”
Because Black and brown students have been so disproportionately targeted by school police—most of the 4,500 citations to Denver students since 2014 have gone to Black and Latino students—that district has decided to act, spurred into action by the movement that has surged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “The reason why we want to move forward without Denver police is simple: We don’t want our schools to be ground zero for the school-to-prison pipeline,” Tay Anderson, a Denver school board member said. They don’t want to see their students losing their lives to cops because they’ve been funneled into a corrupt and racist criminal justice system. On Thursday, the Denver board voted unanimously to have police out of schools in the next 18 months.
Is there a way to have the officers there for the actual protection—not prosecution—of students? Maybe. One school resource officer from Baltimore, Maryland, thinks so. Don Bridges trains the SROs and says that that training is the key. “When we look at programs that are having problems, we see that law enforcement is just putting officers in schools without guidance,” Bridges told the Post. “You do not police a school in the same way you police the streets.” Which seems like a pretty fucking obvious thing to say. And since it has to be said, the conclusion is plenty of cops in schools don’t get that. Schools could certainly start with the people who have already been trained—social workers, mental health counselors, goddamned school nurses—and solve the problem.
That would keep students of color safer, and save a hell of a lot of money. Mayor Bill de Blasio has recommended that New York City’s schools increase the budget for safety officers by $20 million, bringing the grand total annual budget for cops in schools in that city to $427 million. The American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 1 million students don’t have counselors, but their schools have cops. For 22 million students, their schools have cops, but no social workers.
Caleb Reed is a classmate of Derrianna Ford, and he’s been a victim of an overzealous cop. He was arrested two years ago for walking away when an officer demanded to see his student identification at a basketball game. He was in a police station for 6 hours. “I felt angry. My emotions felt big,” Reed told the Post. “But I tried to stay humble—because they expect that from every black person. They expect every black person to act out. […] I think they see us as dangerous.”