Over the last 50 years, an uptick in policing in schools has swept the country and produced a multitude of urgent, critical problems for child safety. Many are unaware of the fact that pre-pandemic, armed police officers staffed every junior high and high school in the William S. Hart Union High School District. The purported goal of this is to keep students safe; however, stationing an armed guard on campus may reap unintended consequences that can endanger students, stifle their prospects for higher education, and derail their chances for prosperity.
In 2007, a Knight High School security guard broke 16-year-old Pleajhai Mervin’s wrist as punishment for spilling a birthday cake on the cafeteria room floor. In 2015, another teenager was tackled to the ground and arrested in South Carolina after their teacher called the police on them for using a cellphone during class. These incidents have raised questions about what we want day-to-day life to look like for school children. Even as schools shift to remote instruction, the discussion continues: In May, a 15-year-old girl from Michigan was incarcerated for neglecting to do her online schoolwork.
The term “school to prison pipeline” has gained popularity over the last decade, for good reason. Research shows over-policing in schools manifests fewer high school graduates, fewer students who go to college, and more who end up in jail for minor offenses, such as marijuana possession or fighting without a weapon. Previously, the responsibility was on teachers, counselors and administrators to attend to small on-campus infractions. But today, occurrences as benign as bathroom graffiti could justify a student being assaulted, handcuffed, and sent to a juvenile detention center by school resource officer.
In a relatively safe city like Santa Clarita, it’s easy to think school policing isn’t an issue that demands our attention. The Hart district has phased out its “zero-tolerance” policy in recent years after concluding it doesn’t work. Its replacement has been a policy of gentle conflict-resolution, with the most extreme cases ending in student suspension or expulsion. So, what’s the problem? The schools aren’t exactly flooded with police, with only one officer per campus. If the district has moved away from its tradition of harsh punishment and there’s been no excessive use of force by the SROs in our district, then what is there to be concerned about?
Teachers and counselors have undergone training in child psychology and conflict resolution. Police officers are trained to interface with criminals. There is no evidence that having any number of officers stationed on campus improves safety. But there is evidence that it could be making matters worse. By alienating students and creating mistrust, child safety is often compromised by police presence on campus.
Author Alan Moore once said, “The buildings that surround us dictate our psychology, the landscapes we exist in, we’re going to internalize them. If you’re living in a place that appears to you to be … [a] rat trap, then … you’re going to [conclude that] you’re some kind of rat.” Similarly, a student monitored by police officers rather than teachers or counselors may conceptualize themselves as more prisoner than pupil. What message do children receive when a police officer patrols their school hallways in perpetuity, tasked almost exclusively with punishing them? Are these children at school to learn, or are they potential criminals in need of surveillance? When schools are strapped for cash, is it an intelligent use of resources to employ an armed officer when 94% of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies?
As a country and a community, we are pondering what school might look like when we make it back to campus. What measures will we take to ensure the health and safety of our children? How will technology and remote learning be implemented? But we must also ask ourselves, do children really require a police officer on their campuses? When we’re putting an armed police officer on campus before any crime has been committed, do our children feel safer, or do they feel more like prisoners on a yard?