In the wake of seemingly endless mass shootings, today President Obama announced his executive strategy for dealing with gun violence in the USA. One of his recommendations is to "Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers." What that means is putting more police in schools.
The ACLU responded to President Obama's announcement by urging schools to consider the effects of turning disciplinary management over to the police. "Despite the president’s best intentions, funding more police officers in schools will turn sanctuaries for education into armed fortresses," said the Washington legislative office's Laura Murphy.
While communities like that in Newtown that suffered the tragic mass shooting may applaud this executive directive, urban communities of color have good reason to feel differently about the idea. That's because police in public schools have a record of disproportionately targeting students of color and students with behavioral and learning disabilities for arrest, even when children are acting silly or rude — but not violent. So while police in the Newtown public schools may make kids feel safer there, the same can't be said for all schools.
"Arrested Futures," a 2012 report published by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the ACLU and Citizens for Juvenile Justice, found that police officers in some public schools in Massachusetts' three largest cities — Boston, Springfield and Worcester — "predominately use [school resource] officers to enforce their code of student conduct." Children are routinely arrested and charged with "disturbing a lawful assembly" for doing utterly non-threatening things such as bouncing a basketball in a hallway and slamming a door.
The report's findings illustrate that so-called "school resource officers" often have the effect of funneling children from underserved, historically marginalized and oppressed communities into the school-to-prison pipeline. Indeed, "students who are arrested at school are three times more likely to drop out than students who are not. Students who drop out are eight times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than those who remain in school and graduate..."
Part of the report's executive summary is copied below. You can read the report in its entirety here.
• In all three districts, there were numerous arrests at school during the school day (“schoolbased arrests”) based on misbehavior that could have been addressed more appropriately by teachers and school staff, and with significantly less harm to students. These arrests were often justified using catch-all public order offenses (such as “disturbing a lawful assembly”).
• While all three districts appear to overuse “public order” offenses as a justification for arrests, Springfield had significantly more such arrests than Boston or Worcester, as well as a much higher overall arrest rate than either of the other two districts. Although the number of public order arrests fell during the three years covered by our study, they fell the least in Springfield and remain unacceptably high.
• While there are undoubtedly many reasons why there are more public order arrests in Springfield than in Boston or Worcester, it appears that the manner in which Springfield deploys police officers in its public schools is a contributing factor. Springfield is the only district that has armed, uniformed police officers from the local police department stationed in selected schools for the entire duration of the school day. These officers report to the Chief of the Springfield Police Department, not the Springfield school district. Although Boston has officers stationed in selected schools, these officers are employed by the Boston Public Schools, are answerable to the Public Schools’ superintendent, and are unarmed. Worcester does not have any officers with arresting authority permanently stationed in its schools.
• Youth of color were disproportionately affected by the policing practices in all three districts. This disproportionality was greatest in Boston. Although African-American students accounted for approximately one-third of Boston’s student body during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, two-thirds of all Boston arrests during that period were of African-American students. Seventy percent of those arrested for public order offenses were African-American.
• Youth with behavioral and learning disabilities were disproportionately affected by the policing practices in Boston and Springfield. The schools with the highest rates of arrest (arrests per 1000 students) in these districts were schools for students with diagnosed learning and behavioral disabilities, raising serious questions about the manner in which these schools are administered.