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How Police Became Part of the Public School System and How to Get Them Out

As students of color continue to face police violence in the classroom, we must ask, why are police in public schools?

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Charges have yet to be brought against Ben Fields, the white police officer in South Carolina who slammed a 16-year-old Black student to the floor of her classroom at Spring Valley High School, injuring her face and neck and breaking her arm.

Nearly a month has passed since the video of the October 26 incident went viral, and while Fields was fired from his job on October 28, he has not been arrested or charged with assault or battery under South Carolina law.

Fields had previously been sued for use of excessive force and currently faces a federal lawsuit in which attorneys claim that he “recklessly targets African-American students.” A federal investigation to determine whether or not any federal laws were violated during the incident is underway.

While questions regarding what charges can and should be brought against former deputy Fields are being investigated, there are other questions that deserve attention. Under what authority were the teacher and administrator allowed to call the police in response to a nonthreatening behavior in the first place? Why are police in classrooms anyway? And how do we get them out?

A Brief History of Law Enforcement in Public Schools

There is no law stating that schools are required to hire law enforcement. The relationship between police and schools has largely been an initiative of local and state authorities. In recent decades, though, this relationship has found significant support at the federal level.

Momentum is still gaining at the federal level to increase the number of police officers in schools.

Between the founding of the first recognized school resource officer program in 1958 and the 1980s, police involvement in schools was adopted by only a handful of school districts and largely supported by local and state funding. In the 1990s, though, police presence in public schools nationwide grew exponentially. During this decade, both the National Association for School Resource Officers was formed, and the US Justice Department developed their COPS in Schools grant program. This federal support dramatically increased the number of law enforcement officers in classrooms across the country. For example, according to a report published in Justice Quarterly, “As of July 2005, COPS has awarded in excess of $753 million to more than 3,000 grantees to hire more than 6,500 SROs through the CIS program and more than $10 million to hire approximately 100 SROs through the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.”

Momentum is still gaining at the federal level to increase the number of police officers in schools. For the 2014 fiscal year, the Obama administration called for an additional $150 million to add up to 1,000 new school resource officers through the Comprehensive School Safety Program. The administration also announced that the Department of Justice would develop a model of best practices for using school resource officers. Funding is also provided through state formula grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. This increased support has facilitated the placement of over an estimated 17,000 police officers in schools nationwide. This support has not increased monitoring or regulations of numbers or behaviors of police in schools, though. Policies surrounding school resource officers are largely still left up to the discretion of the police force, the school district and the state. This lack of regulation has ushered in system-wide abuses against students, especially disadvantaged students, across the country.

Law Enforcement and the Targeting of Disadvantaged Communities

There is no shortage of evidence to back the claim that people of color, people living with disabilities and people forced into poverty are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for interaction, abuse and arrest. They are also subject to unfair treatment in the court system and overrepresented in the prison population. Despite calls by advocates to decrease interactions between police and community members and end the school-to-prison pipeline, limited effort has been made to ensure that students, especially students of color, and disabled and poor students, are protected from abuses by law enforcement. As a result, the same abuses of authority and violations of civil rights are carried over from the community into classrooms.

For example, according to a joint letter written by the US Department of Education and the Department of Justice, “certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers.” Similarly, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that Black students are suspended and expelled three times more frequently than white students, and that Indigenous students are also punished disproportionately. The report also states that students with disabilities “represent 12% of the student populations, but 58% of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75% of those physically restrained at school…. Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities … but 36% of these students who are restrained at school …”

The unfair treatment received by disadvantaged students in the classroom has only been reinforced by law enforcement agencies that also have records of unfairly targeting members of disadvantaged populations in their communities.

Police weren’t always in schools. They don’t need to be there. They can be removed.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports, “Many safety and security measures tended to be more prevalent in high-poverty public schools … than in low-poverty schools.” Schools with student populations that are mostly nonwhite have the highest percentages of campus law enforcement in the country. Over half of the students referred to law enforcement or arrested at school are Latino or Black. And according to activist and author Leroy Moore Jr., “At least one in three students arrested has a disability, ranging from emotional disability such as bipolar disorder to learning disabilities like dyslexia. Some estimate it’s higher than one in three…. students with emotional disabilities are three times more likely to be arrested before leaving high school than the general population.”

The Justice Department has been forced to recognize the existence of law enforcement abuses in the school system and has sued a few school districts that routinely used police to enforce disciplinary infractions. Former Attorney General Eric Holder commented, “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.” Even so, there are no regulations in place to ensure that schools that have a record of disproportionately targeting poor students, students of color and students living with disabilities are banned from receiving funding for school law enforcement. In addition, there are no system-wide regulations in place to ensure that police entities with records of targeting these same populations in the community at large are kept out of the school system.

So what can we do to protect disadvantaged children and communities from the police? How can we get them out of our schools completely?

Student Rights and Ways to Protect Them

According to Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), students do not “shed their constitutional rights at the school house gate.” Even so, students’ rights are restricted under the principle of in loco parentis, which states that school officials are allowed to act “in place of the parent.” For example, according to the Fourth Amendment, a police officer cannot conduct a search without probable cause. As a result of in loco parentis, though, school officials are allowed to search a child’s locker with only reasonable suspicion. In the case of school resource officers, there is no federal consensus on whether a police officer is acting as a law enforcement official or as a school official.

As a result, some states have protected students by ruling that officers must uphold the Fourth Amendment and abide by probable cause standards. Others have left students vulnerable by saying that school resource officers are acting in the capacity of school officials, have the authority to invoke in loco parentis and as a result can abandon probable cause in favor of reasonable suspicion. Similarly, in states where police officers are granted in loco parentis, students are placed under arrest without being read their Miranda rights. This has put into question the Fifth Amendment rights of students nationwide.

While federal protections for students have not yet been secured, and state and local rights are still largely ambiguous, there are local and statewide efforts that have functioned to protect the rights of students and protect students from police contact. For example, the Pacer Center reports that in some states and school districts parents can “[w]rite into the IEP [individualized education program] that your child may not be interviewed by the police or the school’s police liaison officer without a parent present.” Additionally, local and state initiatives have been put into place by community members and advocates working to protect children from police contact.

At the local level, the Justice Policy Institute describes how the cooperative agreement implemented in Clayton County, Georgia, ensures that misdemeanor acts must be responded to with a warning and a mediation referral before a referral to the juvenile legal system. Similar steps were taken in Jefferson County, Alabama. The school discipline code was revised in Baltimore, Maryland, to implement different levels of response to different levels of offense and dictate that only the most serious offenses be reported to law enforcement. In Oakland, California, restorative justice programs have been put in place as a buffer between students and law enforcement. At the state level, less has been accomplished, but legislation was passed in Florida, Colorado and Texas discouraging arrests for basic discipline, misdemeanors and minor offenses.

Other strategies may also prove successful in terms of fighting police presence in public schools. For example, funding restrictions and redirection may prove to be another effective way to disincentivize police presence in schools. Grant application requirements can be implemented to ensure that schools engaged in disproportionate disciplining of disadvantaged communities or law enforcement agencies with disproportionate arrest numbers are disqualified from receiving funding. Officers with any history of misconduct, aggression or civil rights violations can also be disqualified from participating in school programs through hiring policies. Funding for law enforcement can be eliminated altogether and redirected into community education programs. Civil rights advocates can also organize to pass legislation that ensures that police officers are still considered police officers once they pass the schoolhouse gate, in order to safeguard the Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights of students. These efforts can be made at the local, state and federal levels.

Ultimately, though, all students in every state and every school district need to be protected from police contact. These protections need to be secured not only at Spring Valley High School and not just in South Carolina – they need to be secured in every school across the country. Nationwide protections require federal legislation. In the short term, this legislation should protect students from police contact while law enforcement is still allowed in schools. In the long term, it should remove police officers from school grounds completely and implement safeguards to prevent them from returning.

Police weren’t always in schools. They don’t need to be there. They can be removed. If we are going to protect disadvantaged students from unnecessary arrests and take steps to deconstruct the school-to-prison pipeline, police must be removed from the public school system.

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