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We Can't Arrest Our Way to Safer Schools

One year after Newtown, adding more police officers won't prevent school violence

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December 16, 2013

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on Dec. 14, 2013.

By Shelia Bedi

Hard cases make bad laws. Policymakers' overly punitive and police-centric response to high profile school shootings demonstrate this fact. But if you have doubts, ask the six-year-old child who was handcuffed to a chair as punishment after he got into a scuffle with another boy in the school cafeteria. If he doesn't convince you, perhaps the scores of schoolchildren who police assaulted with pepper spray (while at school) will. Or talk to one of the 3.3 million public schoolchildren who are suspended from school each year, often as a consequence for minor rule breaking, such as talking back to teachers or fistfights.

Police presence in schools exploded in the post-Columbine era when well-intentioned policy makers wanted to take decisive action to ensure the safety of our schoolchildren and to protect them from school shootings. As an unintended consequence of this policy shift, countless schoolchildren have been targeted by school-based police officers (also known as school resource officers) and subjected to police brutality in their public school.

Some children escaped physical abuse, but may have seen their life chances evaporate when arrested at school for offenses like excessive flatulence or wearing the wrong color uniform.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Of course, not all school resource officers are out to arrest or brutalize students. A study by the University of Chicago found that those school resource officers who put down the pepper spray and handcuffs, and instead built relationships with students that allowed them to proactively identify and diffuse potentially violent situations, were far more effective at keeping the peace than those officers who always arrested students after an alleged incident.

We all want to prevent violence in our schools.  And thankfully, in the year since the Sandy Hook Shooting, the second worst school shooting in the history of the United States, more school districts shied away from Columbine-era solutions. Schools districts across the country are recognizing that they cannot  arrest their way to safer schools. Not only that, but schools are beginning to recognize that reforming overly-punitive and police centric school discipline policies will help improve academic achievement and reform the racial disparities that still exist in our public schools.

In response to allegations that African-American schoolchildren were unfairly targeted for harsh punishment, the Memphis Police and the Memphis City Schools entered into an agreement that ensures children are not arrested for minor offenses that occur on school grounds, but are instead subject to sanctions that will not interrupt their education, like community services or restitution. During the first year of this agreement, 1,000 fewer children have been imprisoned in Memphis and the city's crime rates have significantly decreased

Broward County Florida recently adopted a similar model in an effort to reduce the number of children arrested at school, improve its dropout rate and eliminate the achievement gap that leaves many black male children behind.  

For years, families in Meridian Mississippi decried the discipline system in the public schools there for discriminating against African-American children by pushing them out of school for behavior that was overlooked when committed by white students. Finally, this year, the U.S. Department of Justice found that  Meridian Public Schools, subjected black students to "harsher consequences, including longer suspensions, than white students for comparable misbehavior, even where the students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories." The school district agreed to a remedy that remedy practically eliminates the role of law enforcement in school discipline.

Despite the positive trend of reducing the traditional "lock 'em up" police presence in schools, the federal government recently made $45 million available for new school resource officer positions around the country. If past is prologue, this influx of officers policing our public schoolchildren will result in another wave of abuse and countless children put out of school and arrested for minor misbehavior. This is not the fault of the officers. They are placed into our schools with the tools to police — not to resolve conflict or to interact with children.

But what is perhaps most disturbing is that the increased police presence won't just cause harm to some students — there's no evidence that it will keep any students safer. A recent report by the civil rights organization the Advancement Project notes that most school based attacks are not halted by school resource officers — but instead end with the intervention of school administrators, educators or students.

The Advancement Project report further documents that safe schools don't result from merely posting a police officer in the halls. Instead, a truly safe school must create support networks, foster peer relationship building, provide ready access to counseling services and facilitate parental involvement. These are the kind of schools that create positive, affirming environments and use restorative justice and conflict resolution to resolve disputes that will inevitably occur.

In schools that have this sort of environment, administrators and yes, law enforcement, are able to use their relationships to anticipate and diffuse potential acts of violence. Demonstrating each day the value and worth of each student and creating a school-based, community-built on a culture of trust and mutual support — these are the most effective weapons we have to protect students from violence in our schools.

No school should add another police officer to its ranks without first adopting Advancement Project's recommendations, taking action to evaluate its environment and reforming the ways it falls short of creating a school climate that truly facilitates student safety.

Moving forward, the U.S. Department of Justice should only provide school resource officer funding to those school districts that have taken the proactive steps to both create a culture of safety and to ensure that school resource officers receive appropriate training. Organizations like Strategies for Youth train "public safety officers in the science of child and youth development and mental health, and supports communities partnering to promote strong police/youth relationships."

These are not the kind of reforms that are sound-bite worthy. They are the kind of reforms that will require a tremendous amount of work and commitment on behalf of the adults that work in our nation's school districts. But they are the only kind reforms that will produce safer schools.

Merely adding cops to schools with toxic safety climates will only create more danger for our schoolchildren. And that outcome must be avoided at all costs.

- Sheila Bedi is a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion