Do police officers make schools safer or more dangerous?

The national reckoning over police violence has spread to schools, with several districts choosing in recent days to sever their relationships with local police departments out of concern that the officers patrolling their hallways represent more of a threat than a form of protection.

School districts in Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have all promised to remove officers, with the Seattle superintendent saying the presence of armed police “prohibits many students and staff from feeling fully safe.” In Oakland, California, leaders expressed support Wednesday for eliminating the district’s internal police force, while the Denver Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to end its police contract.


In Los Angeles and Chicago, two of the country’s three largest school districts, teachers’ unions are pushing to get the police out, showing a willingness to confront another politically powerful, heavily unionized profession.

Some teachers and students, African Americans in particular, say they consider officers on campus a danger, rather than a bulwark against everything from fights to drug use to mass shootings.


There has been no shortage of episodes to back up their concerns. In Orange County, Florida, in November, a school resource officer was fired after a video showed him grasping a middle school student’s hair and yanking her head back during an arrest after students fought near school grounds. A few weeks later, an officer assigned to a school in Vance County, North Carolina, lost his job after he repeatedly slammed an 11-year old boy to the ground.

Nadera Powell, 17, said seeing officers in the hallways at Venice High School in Los Angeles sent a clear message to black students like her: “Don’t get too comfortable, regardless of whether this school is your second home. We have you on watch. We are able to take legal or even physical action against you.”

During student walkouts to protest gun violence and push for climate action over the past two years, some officers blocked students from leaving school grounds or clashed verbally with protesters, she recalled. At Fremont High School in another part of Los Angeles, where the student body is about 90% Latino, police used pepper spray in November to break up a fight.

“All people who are of color here are looked at as a threat,” Powell said.

For years, activists have called on districts to rein in campus police. They cite data showing that mass shootings like those in Parkland, Florida, or Newtown, Connecticut, are rare, and crime on school grounds has generally declined in recent years.

The presence of officers in hallways has a profound impact on students of color and those with disabilities, who, according to several analyses and studies, are more likely to be harshly punished for ordinary misbehavior.

Still, efforts to remove school resource officers face the same pushback as a broader national effort to reduce funding for police departments: resistance from the police themselves, who are often politically powerful, and concern from some parents and school officials that removing officers could leave schools and students vulnerable.

In Oakland, Jumoke Hinton Hodge, a school board member, said that although she strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement, she opposed the effort to eliminate district police officers. Those officers are better equipped to work with teenagers than the city police, who could be called to schools more often if the district no longer had its own force, she said.

The district’s officers train to prevent school shootings, Hinton Hodge said, and they respond to students who have reported sexual abuse or are at risk of suicide. The proposal to eliminate the force felt rushed, she said, and would leave the district without an adequate safety plan.

“Are you here for the long haul, about a movement?” she asked. “Or are you in a moment?”

In New York City last weekend, hundreds of teachers and students marched in a protest calling for police to be removed from schools and replaced by a new crop of guidance counselors and social workers. Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to diverting some of the police department’s funding to social services for children but has so far not shown a willingness to significantly reduce police presence in hallways.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago has rejected calls from the teachers’ union and others to remove officers from schools, saying they are needed to provide security.

Both mayors control their city’s school systems. It is districts with elected school boards, which are more independent from other local government agencies, that are currently driving the wave of change.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said he was disappointed by attempts to link school policing to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He called Floyd’s death during an arrest “the most horrific police abuse situation I’ve seen in my career.”

Well-trained school resource officers operate more like counselors and educators, Canady said, working with students to defuse peer conflict and address issues such as drug and alcohol use. He suggested that disproportionate discipline and arrest rates for students of color and those with disabilities could be driven by the actions of police officers coming off the street to respond to one-off calls from schools, or by campus officers who lack adequate training in concepts such as implicit bias.

“The message to the districts has to be, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,’” Canady said.

But as schools face significant budget cuts brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, some students, educators and policymakers say it would be wiser to hire psychologists to provide counseling and nurses to advise students on drugs and alcohol, instead of training police officers to do such tasks.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, Joshua Omolola, 18, has marched to protest the killing of Floyd. Now, as the student member of the Board of Education, he is supporting a proposal to remove police officers from the county’s schools, whose students are predominantly black and Hispanic.

The millions the county spends annually on school policing should be reallocated to mental health services, Omolola argued, to treat the root causes of student behavioral problems.

Police departments have typically responded to calls from school employees, but the everyday presence of officers in hallways did not become widespread until the 1990s. That was when concern over mass shootings, drug abuse and juvenile crime led federal and state officials to offer local districts money to hire officers and purchase law enforcement equipment, such as metal detectors.

By the 2013-14 school year, two-thirds of high school students, 45% of middle schoolers and 19% of elementary school students attended a school with a police officer, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Institute. Majority black and Hispanic schools are more likely to have officers on campus than majority white schools.

But when the Congressional Research Service reported on the effectiveness of school resource officers in 2013, it concluded that there was little rigorous research showing a connection between the presence of police officers in schools and changes in crime or student discipline rates.


Activists who have worked for years to remove officers from hallways said they were shocked at the speed with which school districts were promising significant change after Floyd’s death. The coming weeks may equal the impact of a decade’s worth of incremental reforms, according to Jasmine Dellafosse, an organizer in Stockton, California, east of San Francisco, with The Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit group.


After the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the state Department of Justice investigated harsh discipline practices in Stockton schools, the district police force agreed last year to establish new restrictions on the use of force and on when to arrest students.

Now the school board plans to consider, later this month, a resolution to remove police officers entirely from schools and to reallocate their budget to programs such as ethnic studies, counseling and restorative justice.

“There won’t be real change,” Dellafosse said, “until police are out of the schools.”

Eliza Shapiro and Erica L. Green contributed reporting.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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