In Part I of my post about police in schools, I focused on some of the problems and worst offenses related to having a police presence in schools. Now I will step back and look at whether the programs are viable and whether the value of such programs outweighs the cost. Do we need police in our schools? How much do such programs cost, and who bears the cost? Does having an ever-present law enforcement help children develop a respect for police, or is it having the opposite effect? In sum, has such a program actually made, or can it make schools a safer place for children to learn?
My earlier examples of children being abused by the very people whose job it is to protect them are, I think, the exception to the rule. Just as police officers who shoot unarmed black males has made headlines far too many times of late, those are the exceptions to the rule, although glaring and unacceptable exceptions. However, police officers are humans and it is inevitable that there will be some who overstep their bounds, who have personal prejudices and use their positions of power to act on those prejudices. So, too, is the case with police in schools.
Why do we need, or at least believe we need police in schools today, when we did not need them 50 years ago? More incidents of children bringing weapons to school, drugs, bullying, and school shootings, are but a few of the justifications. “The SRO shall develop crime prevention programs and conduct security inspections to deter criminal or delinquent activities,” according to a guideline set for the Johns Hopkins University. However, it has also been found that in schools where an SRO is present, teachers and administrators may tend to turn disciplinary issues over to the SRO rather than deal with them directly. It should be noted that there is a difference between criminal activity and disciplinary issues, and teachers are trained specifically to deal with children, whereas police may be less so. It would seem more prudent for trained educators to deal with issues of discipline, just as they always have.
An article by the Justice Policy Institute notes that a decrease in SROs during the period 2003-2007 did not result in an increase in crime within the affected districts, which begs the question whether a police presence is necessary for crime prevention in the schools. This leads us to another consideration, which is the increasing number of students who are arrested for small crimes, or even disciplinary infractions that might have otherwise been handled by school administrators. What is the effect of young people being incarcerated, even if only for a few hours? The term school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor used to describe the increasing patterns of contact students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. We teach our children to respect the police, that the police are their friends, and that they should feel free to go to them if they are ever afraid or in trouble. Yet, what message does it send when a police officer comes to the school and arrests a child, takes him/her to jail, for something as simple as throwing paper airplanes during class? I tend to think it is more likely to make the child afraid of police, rather than to reinforce the idea that the police are his friend.
Then there is the cost factor. The scope of this post does not allow for an in-depth cost-benefit analysis, but let us look at the overall cost. Cost estimates vary widely, based on a number of variables, but most seem to agree that the cost of placing a single SRO in every school in the nation would range between $10 billion and $13 billion annually. The cost generally falls on the school district, but in some cases may be the responsibility of local law enforcement. Either way, at the end of the day, the taxpayer bears the cost. Some would argue that school districts could hire an additional teacher or fund sports programs, buy books, or any number of other academic pursuits and still have money left over. It comes down, once again, to priorities. Enter … the NRA! You knew they had to be behind this somewhere, didn’t you?
The National Rifle Association (NRA), the ongoing lobbying interests of which primarily exist for the promotion of buying more guns under the auspices of “safety,” has apparently concluded once and for all that the way to keep schools safe is to bring more guns on campus. Enough said about the NRA.
Lest we lose sight of the dilemma in the political argument, the only real question, as I see it, is whether police on campus make schools safer and justify the monetary outlay of cash to the taxpayers . Are our children safer because of armed police in their schools, or are they subjected to threats and violence from the police themselves?
I suspect there are, as with most serious issues, no easy answers. My concerns are that: a) police officers are not being properly trained in dealing with young, immature minds that are still in the formative stages; and b) police officers bring their own prejudices into the schools, targeting minority and disabled children more than any others. I think that, as we have seen in the overall view of police communities around the nation recently, officer training and assessment is crucial to fair police work, as well as community relations. It is even more imperative when dealing with the nation’s youth. Not ever one to “throw out the baby with the bathwater”, I think the program has merit if and only if we can ensure that training and oversight prevent such tragedies as those which I addressed in Part I of this post.
I realize that I have asked more questions than I have answered. I have no answers for the rest. I think the abuses are abominable, however if policing in schools can curb bullying, drugs, and perhaps prevent another Columbine or Sandy Hook, I cannot argue against it. What do you think?