I’m constantly worried about my kids’ safety at school. Haven’t you watched the news lately!? Isn’t having a police officer there a good idea?
School cops, also called school resource officers, have become relatively common in the U.S. since the Columbine shooting in 1999. In 1997, only 10% of schools reported employing police officers. By 2017, 58% of schools did, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s federal school safety report.
There are instances in which those officers have successfully deterred or prevented a school shootings, but there’s little evidence that their presence directly reduces the likelihood of school shootings.
What is abundantly clear is that schools with officers are more likely to legally penalize kids for low-level offenses or misbehaviors like vandalism or fights without a weapon.
The impact of cops in school can also sometimes disproportionately impact Black kids and other students of color. Students of color are more likely to attend a school that has a school cop but does not have a school counselor. One study in Texas found that Black middle school students are disproportionately suspended when cops are in school. Since 2011, HuffPost found, children have been Tasered by school cops in at least 143 incidents.
So what would happen if schools removed police officers?
Schools would look largely the same as they did decades ago, said Spencer Weiler, an associate professor of educational leadership and foundations at Brigham Young University.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I could do stupid things and I could learn from them,” said Weiler. “Now students do stupid things and they end up in jail.”
Weiler, who previously worked as a K-12 school administrator, says there are “some strong school resource officers out there and some really bad ones.”
He recalls years ago walking into the main office of a school and watching a school cop handcuff a student for mouthing off. Without the cop, the student may have gotten in trouble, but the situation would not have escalated so severely.
In recent months, in response to demonstrations around the country protesting police brutality and racism, a growing number of school districts have started reconsidering their relationship with police officers, and some have voted to remove them from their buildings.
What has happened in those schools that removed police?
Toronto District School Board in Canada is one good example.
In 2017, the district ended its school resource officer program after about two years of investing in internal anti-racist work. The district studied how to make its schools feel more inclusive and safe for all students, and found that the presence of cops disproportionately impacted students of color.
Now, Toronto schools can still call the cops when necessary, says Jim Spyropoulos, executive superintendent of human rights and Indigenous education for the district, but police are not a regular presence. If officers are called, they are expected to check in with school administrators first to learn more about the student they are dealing with, including any mental, behavioral or physical health concerns. The district also employs about 200 unarmed school safety monitors.
Spyropoulos said the district had to conduct a deep dissection of its shortcomings in order to make this change, which included other new commitments to inclusivity and equity.
“Part of our work and learning was to center the voices of those who have been traditionally impacted and underserved. That was the way for us to hopefully address some of these gaps that have been in place for many, many years,” Spyropoulos said.
Where can I go for more information and resources?
- Dignity In Schools is a multistakeholder organization dedicated to combating the forces that push kids out of schools.