We Can't Arrest Our Way to Safer Schools

Adding more police officers won't prevent school violence.

In this April 11, 2010 photo, Detroit Public Schools K9 officer John Greene and his dog Nitro run through a hallway where lockers were broken into at the Thomas Cooley High School in Detroit.

A Detroit public schools officer.

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Hard cases make bad laws. Policymakers' overly punitive and police-centric response to high profile school shootings demonstrate this fact. But if you have doubts, ask the six-year-old child who was handcuffed to a chair as punishment after he got into a scuffle with another boy in the school cafeteria. If he doesn't convince you, perhaps the scores of schoolchildren who police assaulted with pepper spray (while at school) will. Or talk to one of the 3.3 million public schoolchildren who are suspended from school each year, often as a consequence for minor rule breaking, such as talking back to teachers or fistfights.

Police presence in schools exploded in the post-Columbine era when well-intentioned policy makers wanted to take decisive action to ensure the safety of our schoolchildren and to protect them from school shootings. As an unintended consequence of this policy shift, countless schoolchildren have been targeted by school-based police officers (also known as school resource officers) and subjected to police brutality in their public school.

Some children escaped physical abuse, but may have seen their life chances evaporate when arrested at school for offenses like excessive flatulence or wearing the wrong color uniform.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Of course, not all school resource officers are out to arrest or brutalize students. A study by the University of Chicago found that those school resource officers who put down the pepper spray and handcuffs, and instead built relationships with students that allowed them to proactively identify and diffuse potentially violent situations, were far more effective at keeping the peace than those officers who always arrested students after an alleged incident.

We all want to prevent violence in our schools.  And thankfully, in the year since the Sandy Hook Shooting, the second worst school shooting in the history of the United States, more school districts shied away from Columbine-era solutions. Schools districts across the country are recognizing that they cannot  arrest their way to safer schools. Not only that, but schools are beginning to recognize that reforming overly-punitive and police centric school discipline policies will help improve academic achievement and reform the racial disparities that still exist in our public schools.

In response to allegations that African-American schoolchildren were unfairly targeted for harsh punishment, the Memphis Police and the Memphis City Schools entered into an agreement that ensures children are not arrested for minor offenses that occur on school grounds, but are instead subject to sanctions that will not interrupt their education, like community services or restitution. During the first year of this agreement, 1,000 fewer children have been imprisoned in Memphis and the city's crime rates have significantly decreased

Broward County Florida recently adopted a similar model in an effort to reduce the number of children arrested at school, improve its dropout rate and eliminate the achievement gap that leaves many black male children behind.  

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Newtown shooting.]

For years, families in Meridian Mississippi decried the discipline system in the public schools there for discriminating against African-American children by pushing them out of school for behavior that was overlooked when committed by white students. Finally, this year, the U.S. Department of Justice found that  Meridian Public Schools, subjected black students to "harsher consequences, including longer suspensions, than white students for comparable misbehavior, even where the students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories." The school district agreed to a remedy that remedy practically eliminates the role of law enforcement in school discipline.

Despite the positive trend of reducing the traditional "lock 'em up" police presence in schools, the federal government recently made $45 million available for new school resource officer positions around the country. If past is prologue, this influx of officers policing our public schoolchildren will result in another wave of abuse and countless children put out of school and arrested for minor misbehavior. This is not the fault of the officers. They are placed into our schools with the tools to police — not to resolve conflict or to interact with children.