Three summers ago, about 50 students and activists gathered outside the Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters to demand the school board end a contract that placed police officers in schools.
The officers — whose role was to keep schools safe — actually made students, especially black students, feel criminalized, activists said.
But the majority of teachers, staff and parents liked officers in schools, a district-wide survey showed at the time. The board renewed the three-year contract.
Fast forward to June 2020. Eight days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the school board revisited that contract — and ended it. The vote on June 2, after an even larger crowd of protesters gathered outside, was unanimous.
“The values we see in the police department do not match our values,” said Kim Ellison, chair of the Minneapolis School Board.
The school board became one of the first major governmental bodies to change the balance of power with police in the wake of Floyd’s death. The change has prompted a wave of districts nationwide to consider terminating their relationships with police.
From Chicago, New York and Los Angeles to smaller cities like Rochester, New York; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Maine and Fort Collins, Colorado, students and activists are demanding the discontinuation of school resource officers. They want the money spent on those programs to go to other peacekeeping strategies.
Police in schools contribute to the marginalization of students of color, they say. That’s because schools with large populations of black and brown students are more likely to have law enforcement on site, and in those places, students are more likely to be arrested for certain behaviors, rather than disciplined by an administrator.
Last week, Portland, Oregon’s school superintendent announced he planned to remove police from schools. Denver’s school board is slated to vote Thursday on ending a contract for 18 uniformed officers. In Oakland, California, the majority of the school board and superintendent Wednesday backed a proposal to eliminate the district’s $2.8 million internal police force — despite concerns from some principals, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Advocates for school resource officers say the problem lies with inconsistent training for law enforcement on how to work with students. Making rash moves to end the programs because of political and social pressure could make schools less safe, they say, and also disrupt the opportunity for healthy relationships to grow between law enforcement and students .
“When this is done the right way, it’s the epitome of community-based policing,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
That’s a philosophy where police and the community work together to solve crimes and improve everyone’s quality of life. Canady’s organization trains officers how to enforce the law in a school setting, informally counsel students and act as an educator. But nothing requires school resource officers to undergo such training, Canady said. There’s federal resistance to that idea out of respect for the tradition of local control, he added.
“It’s better if districts would say: ‘We need these officers trained on a national level,’” Canady said.
‘Defund the police’: How did we get here?
Nationally, protesters seeking justice for Floyd want to reduce city police department budgets and redirect more money to social services. But what’s happening at schools offers a window into the relationship between law enforcement and youth.
While police have been stationed in schools for decades, they don’t make schools overwhelmingly more safe, studies show. A review of the most comprehensive studies on school-based law enforcement showed the officers did not improve students’ perception of safety. And out-of-school suspensions and expulsions increased after school resource officers were introduced to a building.
“It’s not like there’s a really strong research base that says with police in schools, crime goes down and bullying goes down and there are no shootings,” said Anthony Petrosino, director of the Justice and Prevention Research Center at WestEd, a nonpartisan research organization that focuses on education.
“School policing is much more common in schools with kids of color,” Petrosino added. “There’s a real question of whether it’s helping or hurting. Is it leading to more of these kids being involved in the justice system or being kicked out of school?”
One big problem is children of racial minorities, especially black students, are more likely to be suspended and expelled from school than white students, even when they commit similar offenses, research shows.
And of the approximate 1.6 million students in America attending schools with police officers but no counselors, more of those students are black than white. By contrast, white students are more likely to attend schools with counselors but not police, federal data show.
On top of that, a number of high-profile incidents in recent years have put a spotlight on police brutality toward black kids and teens, inside and outside of school. A white school resource officer in a South Carolina high school flipped a black girl out of her desk and dragged her across the floor in 2015. A black school resource officer in Orlando arrested a sobbing 6-year-old black student in September, securing her with zip-ties because she was too small for handcuffs.
A white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in the street in 2014. Later that year, a white officer in Cleveland, Ohio, shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy. Rice had been playing with a toy gun outside a recreation center.
Why are police in schools?
In the 1970s, only 1% of schools had a law enforcement officer stationed in them, according to federal data.
Now, 46% of schools have a police officer in the building at least one day a week, according to the most recent federal data. And among large schools, almost 80% had a sworn officer in the building at least one day a week in the 2017-18 school year.
The number of officers in schools accelerated rapidly after 1999, the year of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. The massacre spurred a national discussion about school safety, and a boost in federal funds helped pay for more cops in schools.
Between 1999 and 2005, a program started under the Clinton administration doled out $800 million in grants to police departments to support hiring thousands more school resource officers.
Since then, law enforcement in schools seemed like the one thing that district leaders would not change, said Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.
“We typically don’t even discuss it because it’s a common assumption they’re here to stay,” Kupchik said. “So people focus on how to make it less harmful, like by ending zero tolerance policies and adding more restorative justice programs.”
Under zero tolerance, students who break school rules are subject to mandatory, severe consequences, such as being expelled. Restorative justice programs offer misbehaving students a chance to take ownership of their actions, talk through what prompted them and repair harm they’ve caused to others.
Despite talks of reform, students, social justice groups and the American Civil Liberties Union have been working for years to end school policing — long before the calls emerged as part of the Floyd protests.
That’s a key reason districts are taking action now, said Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
Another reason school districts are more inclined now to remove police officers: money. Districts are facing major financial shortfalls because of the COVID-19 pandemic and loss of tax revenue because of the economic shutdown.
It’s widely acknowledged that low-income children, a group that includes many black and brown children, will need more support to get back on track once schools reopen. Many haven’t had access to all the tools needed for online learning, such as high-speed internet or their own computer.
Police contracts are one non-academic budget item that could be dropped.
“All of that is contributing to why this movement is really catching on,” Hinger said.
What are the latest districts to take action?
Seattle Public Schools announced this week that it would suspend officers from schools for one year.
In Oakland Wednesday, the school superintendent joined the majority of the school board in backing the elimination of the district’s in-house police force. One idea is to replace it with non-uniformed ambassadors to keep the peace in schools.
Black students account for 73% of the students arrested in Oakland’s schools, while only making up 23% of the district’s population, according to the Black Organizing Project, a local advocacy group.
Oakland’s board is slated to vote on eliminating the police force on June 24.
Who’s against removing police from schools?
Some districts are less inclined to remove officers.
The Chicago Teachers Union has reinvigorated its call for the city to replace school resource officers with counselors. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who runs the city as well as the district, indicated she’s not interested in dumping the $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department.
More than three-quarters of the city’s high schools have police in them, and the local parent and teacher councils at all of them voted to keep the officers this year, according to local news reports.
“Unfortunately, we need security in our schools,” Lightfoot said.
In protest, Chicago teachers and students have recently staged marches and car caravan parades between high schools.
In Los Angeles, the teachers’ union said Monday it supports ending the district’s in-house police force. The unit places about 400 officers throughout the nation’s second-largest school district at a cost of about $70 million annually.
But the head of the district’s school police union said officers are better trained to de-escalate situations in buildings than outside cops called to campus, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Phoenix, hundreds of students have been protesting the use of on-campus police officers, but the school board has not yet taken a vote on whether to renew the contract.
What are the alternatives to school resource officers?
There’s not much good data on what happens when you remove police officers from schools. But New York and Louisville have tried some new ideas.
A decade ago, a report from New York City examined how a handful of high schools serving at-risk students maintained safe environments without police. District safety agents patrolled halls instead. Metal detectors were removed. Administrators created alternatives to harsh discipline policies.
The ACLU, which published the report, is notably in favor of removing police from schools.
In Louisville, Kentucky, the Jefferson County Public Schools cut ties with school resource officers last August, because of issues related to the criminalization of black students. The district this week couldn’t provide a comparison of school arrest data from before and after police were removed. But in general, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, school safety hasn’t changed much, though one school made headlines for some high-profile, student-on-teacher altercations.
Louisville has seen even more forceful protests than some cities in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by a white police officer in her bedroom in March.
A district spokesperson in Jefferson County said this week the district is re-evaluating its school safety plan, which could still include armed guards in schools.
In Florida, Janice Scott Cover, a former assistant superintendent in the Palm Beach County School District, said administrators can also work harder to identify the root cause of student misbehavior — whether cops are there or not.
When she became principal of a troubled K-5 elementary school two decades ago, the school resource officer arrested children for fighting, disrespecting teachers and walking out of class.
“Not all the resource officers understand how to police in schools,” Cover said. “Some still behave like they’re out on the street — grabbing people and throwing them down —and I did not want that on the campus.”
Cover rearranged the budget to hire another social worker, who became the first stop for misbehaving children. She had teachers rearrange classrooms so students worked in groups and practiced cooperation. She and her teachers doubled-down on prodding into students’ lives, often getting them needed household or personal items.
Over time, the climate — and academics — improved, something Cover recounts in her book about turning around low-performing elementary schools.
“I’m happy now that people are beginning to look at this,” said Cover, who is black.
“My hope is that you don’t just remove the police officers, but replace them with something else, like counselors or mental health professionals or school psychologists.”