Students, parents, educators and policymakers are all concerned with finding the best ways to keep schools safe, because learning occurs best in an inviting, safe and orderly school setting. Two areas of particular concern have been acts of school violence and bullying on school grounds.
While it is essential to protect our school communities from physical and mental violence, we must ensure that individual students have their needs met and are not harmed by unnecessary and harsh discipline and justice system involvement, which can funnel young people into the school-to-prison pipeline. School safety depends on fostering positive school climates, building strong relationships and giving every student of the corporation what they need to thrive.
Currently, school resource officers are hired with funding from a Department of Justice COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program. Documentation from the Department of Justice indicates that it is the responsibility of school administrators, not SROs, “to resolve routine discipline problems involving students … unless the violation or misbehavior involves criminal conduct.” Given that very few infractions of school regulations are criminal in nature, we believe that the presence of armed police officers in schools is unnecessary.
Additionally, school-based arrests that do occur disproportionately involve Black students. An analysis of state data has shown that school police are 2.5 times more likely to arrest Black students than white students committing the same offense. This disparity raises questions of racial bias and educational inequity. Although there is no concrete data to indicate that police in schools improve the mental health, educational outcomes or safety of students, it is certain that damage is done when an officer detains, handcuffs or arrests a student. This is only exacerbated by the documented disparity in the number of suspensions and expulsions of Black students.
We believe that school safety would not be compromised by removing SROs. Building security personnel would still be present to “monitor school buildings, grounds and parking areas to deter, detect, report and stop violations of the law and/or school board policies” (from the SBCSC job description). Teachers would still be responsible for providing a safe and orderly classroom setting, and students and educators would still be expected to carry out the corporation-wide code of conduct. If and when criminal activity occurs, city police officers would be called for assistance.
More importantly, eliminating SROs would provide financial resources that could be redirected toward hiring much-needed school-based mental health professionals. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Cops and No Counselors, How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Students,” concluded that there is a severe shortage of the staff most critical to school safety and positive school climate — school-based mental health providers. As a result, school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers are overwhelmed with student caseloads that compromise quality and result in children with unmet needs. This creates one of the greatest vulnerabilities for school safety.
The ACLU report found that most schools have significantly less staff than recommended by experts and professional organizations. In Indiana, 56% of our students are in schools with SROs, 49% are in schools reporting police but no psychologist, nurse, social worker and/or counselor and 10.5% report an SRO but no counselor.
We propose that any corporation or municipal financial resources that previously have been used for SROs should be redirected to hiring educational SBMH providers. We especially are concerned that this happens as soon as possible. Data shows that school staff who provide health and mental health services to our children not only improve the health outcomes for those students, but also improve school safety. Furthermore, according to the ACLU report, “schools that employ more SBMH providers see improved attendance rates, lower rates of suspension and other disciplinary incidents, lower rates of expulsion, improved academic achievement and career preparation and improved graduation rates.”
Our children are experiencing the traumatic effects of a pandemic as well as the social and economic consequences that have accompanied it. They will return to schools and classrooms with social, emotional and psychological challenges that must be addressed if they are to succeed in those classrooms. We should commit to making the changes needed to support their success.
Trina Robinson is president of
Community Action for Education.