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Excerpted From: Courtney Shannon, Ending School Contracts with Law Enforcement, 46 Human Rights 19 (2021) (Full Document)
Most recipients of public school education and educators in countless counties and school districts across the nation probably could not remember a time where law enforcement has not had a presence in public schools. Many students have had the pleasure of meeting Officer Friendly on their visits to classrooms in efforts to teach students about safety and just saying no to drugs. Scores of public school students were proud to be members of programs promoted by law enforcement in schools like the “Smoke Free Class of 2000” and “D.A.R.E.” These programs saw great acceptance in school districts around the nation in the 1980s and 1990s. There's no doubt that many students may have even benefited from having a positive rapport with school resource officers (SROs).
However, there are also countless experiences that do not garner the “warm, fuzzy” feelings of safety with the presence of law enforcement officers in schools. SROs, while paid typically from the budgets of school districts that they serve (and not by the local police department they represent), have the power of law enforcement. This power often brings legal consequences to infractions like “disruptive behavior,” which, without the presence of law enforcement, would result in a phone call home and school-based discipline measures.
The days of children flocking to see Officer Friendly have given way to a more ominous and perhaps negative relationship and connotation to the presence of law enforcement in schools. Some activists would argue that this ominous and contentious relationship between SROs and the students that they are hired to protect is evidence of the “writing on the wall” from the early adoption of programs that have placed armed law enforcement officers in public schools since the late 1950s.
Since the Columbine school shooting and others like Sandy Hook and the Park-land school shootings, the automatic outcry and go-to (almost knee-jerk) response has been to increase armed law enforcement presence in public schools to ensure the safety of K--12 students across the nation.
It can hardly be argued that the general public does not want safe schools. No one wants to send their children to school to be subjected to violence at any time, let alone when they should be focused on learning. What can and has been argued is how to ensure that students across the United States are educated in safe environments.
Should the perception of safety come at the expense of increased racial profiling and the disproportionate influx of Black and brown students into the school to prison pipeline? Should school districts use their currently stretched budgets to fund what appears to be a substantially ineffective school policing model that results in further widening the achievement gap?
There are records of school shootings that date back to 1840. There have been multiple school shootings every year since 1966, and it seems as though the only thing that halted school shooting statistics from rising further in 2020 was the shutdown of the brick-and-mortar education model in the wake of COVID-19. This article does not aim to suggest that the mere presence of SROs results in school shootings. This article does suggest that after over half a century, the knee-jerk response to increase armed law enforcement presence in schools is not making schools safer.
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PBIS and restorative solutions programming will allow teachers go back to handling classroom management with administrative structures that support every student.
Restorative solutions seek to repair past harms and prevent future harms by changing the source behaviors that lead to referrals, suspension, and law enforcement involvement for nonviolent, social, psychological, and emotional issues. Staff with elevated behavioral and disciplinary dean status, mental health counselors, school psychiatrists, and other qualified and highly trained staff are equipped with the tools to de-escalate situations rooted in social, emotional, and psychological foundations.
School security measures that increase police presence have yet to be proven effective. Stricter security measures in schools that serve communities and students of color are more likely to resemble prisons than educational institutions. Measures that include metal detectors, body scans, and placing personal belongings on a conveyor belt for searching have not been proven to prevent the increase in school shootings and could arguably increase instances of school violence.
Running schools like prisons negatively impacts learning outcomes of minority students and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. SROs carry and use tasers and employ detaining techniques like chokeholds and takedowns. Instead of making students feel safer in their schools, these tactics leave many students fearful and anxious when they should be in environments that foster learning and communication and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Basic human rights have been increasingly used to politicize and polarize people for generations. The sheer recognition of the “mattering” of Black lives and the visceral response some have to the statement that “Black Lives Matter” are evidence that a statement can speak so loudly that it drowns out the idea that the heart of the matter is that we all deserve compassion, equality, and more than just lip service to truly dismantle a system of murder and oppression which has been alive and thriving for centuries.
The adversarial criminal policing system has been around since the 1700s. What began as a blatant effort to recapture enslaved Africans to return them to their masters has evolved into consistent harm to the Black community in the United States over 300 years later. The public outcry that has called for a movement toward abolition of the police state is quite nuanced and layered. There was and still remains confusion surrounding the movement to abolish and defund the police.
What is dangerous about the conversation to move to abolish the police is to equate the abolition with inevitable lawlessness as the result. The argument that dismantling the police would result in a lack of laws and a rise in criminal behavior is shallow at best and steeped in dangerous, coded, fear-based, dog-whistle politics at worst.
Courtney Shannon is a second-year law student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Before attending law school, she served as a middle and high school educator for 13 years.
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