More Cops In Schools Won’t Keep Kids Safe

After last week’s devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students across America are demanding an assault weapons ban, comprehensive background checks, and a promise that young people can be safe in our nation’s classrooms. Students won’t back down and Congress is finally feeling the pressure to act. 

The President, the NRA, and conservative media personalities, like Sean Hannity and Geraldo Rivera, have responded by calling for armed teachers, gun-toting retired soldiers, or more cops in schools. Here’s the problem: more cops in schools won’t keep students safe. Instead, they mean more students — especially students of color — will be handcuffed, beaten, tased, and pushed out of school and into the prison system.

According to data issued by the U.S. Education Department, nearly 42 percent of high schools already have a school resource officer (SRO): a law enforcement agent deployed to work in their schools.

When we put cops in school, we push students into the criminal legal system. Police in schools frequently arrest students for nothing more than normal childhood misbehavior. In the 2011-2012 school year, they arrested 92,000 students on school grounds, overwhelmingly for low-level civil violations and misdemeanors or vaguely defined offenses like “obstructing governmental administration.” Here are a few examples:

  • A 14-year-old in Massachusetts was arrested after bouncing a basketball in a school hallway and slamming a classroom door shut. He was handcuffed, taken to the police station, and charged with “disturbing a lawful assembly.”
  • A middle-schooler in Virginia was charged with criminal assault and battery “for throwing a baby carrot at her teacher.”
  • Kids as young as five are charged with “crimes” for throwing a paper airplane, kicking a trash can, and wearing sagging pants.

Unsurprisingly, students of color are far more likely to bear the consequences. According to the Department of Education, black students make up just 16 percent of total student enrollment — but 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students “involved in a school-related arrest” are black. 70 percent of students involved in in-school arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino. Students with a disability are three times as likely to be arrested at school than students without a disability. A staggering 75 percent of the students “physically restrained at school,” including by handcuffs are disabled.

All of this amounts to a massive civil rights issue: the systemic school pushout of students of color and disabled students.

Because of the massive racial gap in student discipline, students of color are disproportionately likely to be arrested in school, which means they lose out on class time, which in turn means they may fall behind in school. This contributes to an enduring education gap: black and Latino students are twice as likely not to graduate high school as white students, and students who are harshly disciplined are more likely to be incarcerated. Students arrested at school may be slapped with an criminal record that follows them around for life, making it harder for them to find a job or pursue higher education.

In other words, cops in schools aren’t safeguarding kids — they’re arresting students and denying them the opportunity to learn.

What’s worse, police brutality in schools is on the rise. Last year, a Texas school district garnered national criticism after a viral video showed a Dallas SRO body-slamming a 12-year-old girl in school. She’s not alone. The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, has found evidence of many incidents in which students, especially black students, were stomped on, beaten with batons, thrown into lockers, and tasered by SROs. That’s not keeping students safe — it’s subjecting them to state-sanctioned violence.

I fear that expanding the police presence in schools could lead to another kind of school shooting. The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on police officers who, armed with deadly weapons but little implicit bias training, have killed unarmed black men and boys. What happens when the next Tamir Rice brings a toy gun to school? Or, for that matter, to the next Philando Castile, a black school employee who was killed for carrying a legal gun with a concealed carry permit?

On top of all of this, there is little evidence that cops in schools will even keep students safe. There were armed guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech, but they did not deter the shootings. In fact, in researching this piece, I couldn’t find a single instance in which an SRO stopped a school mass shooter. Tragically, Parkland drives this point home — the local police deputy assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School waited outside, protecting himself instead of the kids. Recent reports reveal that multiple police officers did the same. Those cops didn’t stop the Parkland shootings, and there is no evidence they will stop the next one.

Putting more police in schools is not going to solve school shootings. Instead, it would mean more policing of disabled kids and arresting black students for normal childhood behavior. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s an insult to the Parkland students, who are calling for fewer guns in school, not more. It’s time for Congress to listen and finally prioritize people’s lives over gun manufacturers’ bottom line.

Editor’s Note: This article is cross-posted from the Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Journal’s Amicus Blog. You can check out the blog here!


Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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