By Kathy Greenier, Director, Women’s Rights Project, ACLU of Virginia

The recent school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut  led to calls for enhanced school security at the federal, state and local levels, and in particular for more police on school campuses (including elementary schools). Virginia is no exception – during this year’s General Assembly Session, legislators introduced four bills related to increasing police presence in the Commonwealth’s schools.
Three bills in particular gave rise to serious concerns: House Bill 1730, Senate Bill 940, and Senate Bill 1240. Each required local school boards to establish a collaborative agreement with local law-enforcement agencies to employ one full-time uniformed school resource officer in every school in the local school division. We’re pleased the appropriate subcommittees killed this legislation (primarily because of the cost of what would have been an unfunded mandate), but the introduction of this legislation confirms that we really need to talk about the proper role of police in schools in Virginia and across the country.
The rationale for having police in schools is to address serious and deadly violence, particularly from outsiders as was the case in Newtown.  Virtually all school policing programs are significantly broader in scope than a focus on protecting the students, however, and that is a fundamental flaw in the practice.  Numerous studies and anecdotal information show that a significant portion of police activity in our schools is not about protecting the students but about   disciplining or punishing them, quite often for misbehavior that does not seriously threaten school safety and previously would have resulted in nothing more than a trip to the principal’s office or an after school detention.  With police in schools, students are now being ticketed and even arrested for behaviors that were historically handled by educators as discipline issues, including everything from minor fights to drawing on desks to temper tantrums.[1]  This over-policing is funneling kids into the juvenile justice system and crippling their futures.
If police are stationed in schools, they should be responsible only for protecting the students by addressing serious threats to life and safety, i.e., serious criminal law matters, not for minor violations best handled by schools as discipline issues. School-based police must be adequately trained to work with youth, and there must be transparency in and accountability for their activities. Law enforcement intervention (including arrest, citation, summons, etc.) ought to be a last resort. This should be the framework of any school police program, and should be clarified both in a foundational written document (such as a memorandum of understanding between the school and the police department) and in the overall culture of the school police program.
Too often there is a lack of clarity among both educators and police about what kinds of incidents warrant police involvement, and as a result police often intervene in misconduct that can safely be handled by educators.  If police presence is going to be introduced or increased in a given school or district, there should be strong and clear limitations on the kinds of student behavior that will trigger police involvement in the first place.
Further, we must keep in mind that the impact of over-policing is especially harsh on youth of color. Students of color bear the brunt of over-policing, and we must seriously consider the impact of increased police presence on them, their learning environments and their futures.  Students of color are arrested in schools at disproportionate rates, and are more likely to be arrested than their white peers for the exact same misbehaviors. According to federal data, more than 70 percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement during the 2009-2010 school year were Hispanic or African-American.[2]   This unequal treatment is unacceptable.
Students with disabilities also suffer disproportionately from over-policing, and in some cases may end up arrested for behaviors that are manifestations of their disabilities.[3]
This misguided approach to school safety has serious negative consequences for youth, causing emotional trauma and increasing the likelihood that they will drop out of school.[4]
Before we rush to “protect” students by putting police in schools, and criminalizing every bad behavior, we need to understand the serious negative consequences that can have, including the possibility of young children being handcuffed and arrested.  Without proper discussion, policymakers may put police in schools without training or accountability mechanisms that can reduce their negative impact on youth. House Bill 1730, Senate Bill 940, and Senate Bill 1240 did not contain such parameters.  If similar legislation is introduced next year, legislators would be wise to ensure their policies are based on conversations with those who know kids best, including educators, parents and children themselves, along with safety experts.




[1] Stephanie Chen, “Girl's arrest for doodling raises concerns about zero tolerance.”  CNN (February 18, 2010).  “Salecia Johnson: 6-year-old handcuffing sparks school debate.” Associated Press (April 18, 2012).  Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track (2005).  ACLU/ACLU of Massachusetts, Arrested Futures: The Criminalization of School Discipline in Massachusetts’ Three Largest School Districts (2012).  Justice Policy Institute, Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools (2011).
[2] U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, “The Transformed Civil Rights Data Collection” (March 2012).
[3] ACLU/ACLU of Massachusetts, Arrested Futures: The Criminalization of School Discipline in Massachusetts’ Three Largest School Districts (2012).  Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track (2005).  Justice Policy Institute, Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools (2011).

[4] Gary Sweeten, “Who Will Graduate? Disruption of High School Education by Arrest and Court Involvement,” Justice Quarterly 23:4 (2006).  Stephanie Chen, “Girl's arrest for doodling raises concerns about zero tolerance.”  CNN (February 18, 2010).  Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track (2005).

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