In recent months, I have seen a number of articles about abuse by teachers, by police in schools, and by other students, primarily targeting African-American children. I sensed a blog post in the making, but have resisted, as I knew it would require a great deal of research and be one of my more major, heart-wrenching projects. But the news along these lines just keeps coming, and I can no longer sit back and pretend I do not see, immersing myself in presidential campaigns to the exclusion of real issues that are affecting real people. So today, I must ask the question: Are children safe in public schools, or are they victims of the very people who we trust to keep our children safe? Why do we even have a police presence in schools, and when did this trend start?
Police officers in schools, School Resource Officers (SRO), dates back to 1953, when Flint, Michigan provided the first documented SRO to improve relations between police officers and youth in the community. The program was considered a huge success, and during the 1960s and 1970s, many school districts around the country created their own SRO program. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals advised all law enforcement agencies to provide at least one annual presentation to every grade level in their jurisdiction related to the law enforcement officer’s role in society. They recommended that every agency with over 400 employees assign a full time officer to each junior and senior high school to teach classes, counsel students, be a resource and enforce the law. This declaration gave school resource officer programs their first national recognition.
SROs are intended to work closely with administrators in an effort to create a safer environment for both students and staff. Additionally, they typically have duties that include mentoring and conducting presentations on youth-related issues. Looks good on paper, but the reality is often a different matter and some are asking why the state is criminalizing normal childhood behaviour? Children have been arrested for throwing paper planes and failing to pick up crumbs from the cafeteria floor and other things that we all did as children, without fear of arrest, being handcuffed, or worse, beaten.
I lead with the story that caught my eye back in March, about a little girl, six-year-old Madisyn Moore, a student at Fernwood Elementary in Chicago, who was handcuffed by a school security guard for taking a piece of candy from the teacher’s desk. Her mother received a call from the school, and when she arrived nearly an hour later, Madisyn was still handcuffed under a set of stairs in the boiler room and was crying. Madisyn is also a special needs student. When the mother asked why her daughter was in handcuffs, the security guard replied, “I’m doing my job, I’m trying to teach her a lesson.” Any parent who used this method to “teach their child a lesson” would find themselves in a world of trouble! The school principal offered an apology, which Madisyn’s mother, understandably, refused. I cannot find any updates to this March story other than that Madisyn’s mom, Marlena Wordlow, is suing and CPS fired the security guard.
This is not an isolated incident: this spring, a middle school student was handcuffed by a school resource officer after he was accused of stealing milk — even though, since he’s on the free school lunch program, he didn’t need to pay for it anyway. Last year, an eighth grade student was reportedly arrested and detained for six days after he threw Skittles on the bus. It’s also more common for law enforcement officers to be involved in student discipline incidents involving black students. These officers have been accused of using excessive force to discipline students of color. No surprise there.
There are now more than 43,000 SROs and other sworn police officers, and an additional 39,000 security guards, working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. “The first time a lot of black and brown children experience police violence is in a school building. The first place that our children learn to fear police, learn they’re controlled instead of empowered, is in a school building,” said Brittany Packnett, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement.
But It isn’t only African-American children, though they are most often singled out, as we shall see in a minute. In June 2015, A Florida school police officer was arrested and charged with child abuse for allegedly slamming a 13-year-old student to the ground and twisting his arm. In August 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued a Kentucky sheriff after a deputy was caught on camera handcuffing disabled children who didn’t follow directions. And in September 2015, a federal judge ruled that school police in Birmingham, Ala., had used unconstitutional and excessive force when they routinely pepper-sprayed children for minor disciplinary infractions — including a pregnant student whose offense was crying in a hallway.
And in South Carolina last October, Deputy Ben Fields was caught on video grabbing a young woman and tossing her out of her chair, slamming her to the floor, and then dragging her to the front of the classroom, where he cuffed her hands behind her back. Deputy Fields has since been relieved of his position, but the problem of police brutality and racism in the schools remains.
In Collingswood, New Jersey, police have interceded in non-incidents, including one where a child was questioned for a comment about brownies, the kind you eat, that parents have started a petition to “stop mandated criminal investigation of elementary school students.” Collingswood Public Schools Superintendent Scott Oswald estimated that over the last month, officers may have been called in to intervene in as many as five incidents per day in the district, which serves 1,875 students.
“Too many of our schools are arresting and criminalizing children as young as 5,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group. More than 64,000 students were arrested at school in 2011-2012, according to federal civil rights data, the most recent available. Thirty percent of those arrests involved black students, although black students accounted for just 16 percent of the overall student population. Although federal data is incomplete, some states have been keeping records for years. In Florida, for example, black students accounted for 53 percent of school-based arrests in 2013-2014, but they account for just 23 percent of the population. San Francisco’s school board signed an agreement with police that limited school resource officers to intervening only in the most serious criminal cases, such as those involving weapons or serious bodily harm. During the past three years, the number of arrests inside schools has been cut in half, from close to 200 to about 90.
Video footage of a Baltimore school police officer kicking a student and slapping him repeatedly has sparked outrage among parents and administrators. In the video, the officer swears at a Reach Partnership high school student while slapping the teen’s face three times. Then he kicks the teen against a wall. A second officer makes no effort to stop him. The officer is currently on administrative leave, as well as the chief of Baltimore’s school police. In January 2015, also in Baltimore, three middle school girls were punched and beaten with a baton. One of the girls had her head bashed open. The three girls were ultimately detained at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.
The following statistics, according to a recent study by U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, pertain to pre-school children, kids around the age of 4:
- Across age groups, black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended.
- While boys make up the large majority of students who are suspended (about eight in 10), about 12 percent of black girls are suspended and 7 percent of Native American girls are suspended. That’s a rate higher than that of white boys (6 percent).
- Black students make up about 16 percent of enrolled students, but make up more than a quarter of all students who are referred to the police.
- Native Americans are also overrepresented among the suspended. They make up one percent of enrolled students but two percent of the suspended.
- Students with disabilities make up about 12 percent of the student population, but they make up 75 percent of those restrained at schools. There’s a racial gap there, too: blacks are about 19 percent of the population with a disability, but make up more than a third of students who “are restrained at school through the use of a mechanical device or equipment designed to restrict their freedom of movement.
- English-language learners were underrepresented among the suspended.
As I sometimes do, I bit off more than I could chew in a single post, so this is Part I of what will ultimately become a two-part series. In Part II, I will look at whether there is value to having police officers in the schools, whether, in spite of the problems, they are actually making the schools safer, the cost of these programs, and what can be done, if anything, to fix the program and resolve the problems.