Police officers in public schools: Are they the main contributors in the “school-to-prison pipeline?”

Police officers who work inside the public school systems across the nation lack the training to work with children, and therefore, contribute to the influx of students being pushed into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Photo by YouTube.

With the growth of social media, stories regarding police brutality and children in school are being made available for all of the public to witness.  For example, only a few weeks ago a video surfaced showing a sixteen-year-old girl getting slammed to the ground and dragged across the floor by a police officer in a school in Columbia, South Carolina.  The prevalence of these types of incidents has renewed the debate on whether police presence is necessary in public schools.

The same day the assault occurred in South Carolina, a newsletter was sent out to concerned parents of that school district titled: “School to Prison Pipeline.”  A forum had been planned by the Richland Two Black Parents Association (“RTBPA”) to discuss the problem, but statewide flooding caused it to be postponed.  Leon Lott, Richland County Sherriff, fired Deputy Fields after seeing the video.  In a subsequent interview, Sheriff Lott stated that the video was “very disturbing” and made him “want to throw up.”  In a later interview though, the Sheriff also stated that the young girl and another that came to her defense, deserved to be arrested.

This type of arrest for minor incidents is an example of what creates the school-to-prison pipeline problem that is prevalent in our country today.  Lines have been blurred between having security inside schools, what an officer’s responsibility and job duties are, and how to handle discipline.

It was not until the 1980s, when “tough on crime” state and federal policies attempted to bring down juvenile crime rates, that police presence in public schools drastically increased. 

This blurring of the line is what has perpetuated the school-to-prison pipeline problem.  Police were not always present in the public school system.  Fewer than 100 police officers were in schools when the practice began in the 1950’s.  However in the 1980s, “tough on crime” state and federal policies that attempted to bring down juvenile crime rates contributed to the increase in police presence in public schools.

One of the police tactics implemented in the early ‘80s was the “Broken Windows” tactic.  Law enforcement officers began focusing on rooting out minor disorders as a way to prevent crime that is more serious.  Even today, critics argue the tactic is ineffective and completely open to bias and racial discrimination.  Applying this tactic to the school setting has led to arrests involving inoffensive issues that school administrators should be dealing with, such as cutting in line in the cafeteria and dress code violations.

In United States v. City of Meridian, a complaint was filed by the Department of Justice alleging that the school district was consistently violating the constitutional rights of its students.  The complaint also alleged that from 2006 to 2009 all of the students referred to law enforcement were black.  Additionally, all of the students expelled were black and 96% of the students suspended were black.  The complaint claimed that the school district was enforcing a direct wide school-to-prison pipeline.  In June 2015, both parties finally reached a settlement.  The settlement delineated the changes the school district had to make to its discipline policies.  More importantly, the agreement expressly listed what disciplinary issues were strictly to be handled exclusively by the school administration, and what matters the police could get involved in.

In 2014, African American students represented 27% of law enforcement referrals, despite making up only 16% of enrollment. 

The national average of minorities being arrested for minor offenses is considerably higher than those for non-minority students.  In the 2009-2010 school year, African American students were four times more likely to be suspended than white students.  From 1999 to 2007, the percentage of white students being expelled from schools went down from 1.8% to 1.1%.  However, the percentage for African American students rose from 6.5% to 10.3%.  Suspension rates are similarly disproportional.  In 2014, 5% of white students were suspended compared to 16% of African American students.

Even preschoolers are not exempt from this racial disparity. A government study in 2014 demonstrated that African American children make up only 18% of preschoolers in the nation, but make up nearly half of all out of school suspensions.

Racial bias is a major issue that has helped create these types of statistics.

 Critics of the school-to-prison pipeline argue that the disparity in the suspension and arrest rates is a result of the similarly disproportionate levels of misbehavior between minority and white students.  Research has shown that even when statistical controls were set for an individual student’s misbehavior and other characteristics, African American students were still nearly twice more likely to be suspended than white children, and Hispanic students were about 1.5 times as likely.

Racial bias plays a prominent role in the arrests and suspensions of minority students as well.  Studies have shown that the type of activities that generate discipline vary between white and minority students.  White students tend to be referred more often for offenses that are easier to document objectively, such as smoking, vandalism, and fighting.  Minority students have been referred more for offenses that are subjective and at risk for bias, including showing disrespect, disorderly conduct, and loitering.

Racial bias is a major issue that has helped create these types of statistics.  Solutions to counter this issue, such as training or having police be less involved in school disciplinary matters, need to be implemented.  Jim St. Germain, co-founder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, a nonprofit mentoring group, states, “Kids from suburban white America – they don’t get arrested for cursing out a teacher or throwing a book. These are the things they go to a counselor for.”

Reports show that schools with a higher percentage of minority and poor students tend to have a larger police presence.  Kaitlin Banner, a civil rights attorney for the Advancement Project, addressed this factor by stating, “[T]here are structural problems—[i]n schools where there are more students of color, we see less money spent on preventative measures like counselors and nurses and librarians, and more money spent on police.”

The public education system itself has still not been able to properly accommodate students with disabilities, especially mental disabilities.

Minorities are not the only class of students who are disproportionately represented in the public school disciplinary system.  Students with disabilities are heavily victimized, too.  National data shows that in the 2010-2011 school year, students with disabilities represented only 12% of students enrolled, but represented 58% of students who were placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement had disabilities and 75% of the students who were physically restrained at schools had disabilities.

One of the reasons why these numbers are so much higher than even minority students is because the public education system itself has still not been able to properly accommodate students with disabilities, especially mental disabilities.  School Resource Officers and Police Officers are even less prepared to work with students with disabilities, and therefore, end up treating these students as if they were an ordinary suspect.

Only twelve states have laws that specify training requirements for officers deployed to classrooms. 

Lack of proper training is a major contributor to the problem with police officers in the classroom.  Only twelve states have laws that specify training requirements for officers deployed to classrooms.  Unfortunately, these laws are inconsistent.  Some mandate training on how to respond to an active shooter, while fewer focus on dealing with children differently than adults.  Survey results from a 2012 study show that in thirty-seven states, police academies spent one percent or less of total training hours on juvenile justice issues.  Only one state, Tennessee, provides specific training for officers deployed in schools.  In five states, police academies do not require any training focused specifically on juvenile justice issues.

Organizations that provide police officers with the appropriate training say that often, money is an issue.  Lisa Thurau, founder of Strategies for Youth, states, “[W]e’re increasing demands on police and doing nothing to support or equip them to be first responders to youth and families’ needs.”  The specialized training that these organizations offer is currently on a volunteer basis.  School districts and police departments do not want to pay in order to make this training mandatory.

Although there is no excuse for the way in which Officer Fields handled the incident in Columbia, many question whether he should have even been involved to begin with.  Janel George of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational explained, “[W]hat we find is school safety becomes conflated with school discipline—officers dealing with classroom disruptions, dress code infractions, minor discipline infractions that in the past would have been handled by teachers.”

Properly trained and employed school resource officers have the opportunity to create positive interactions that are essential to community-policing efforts.  They also have the opportunity to build strong relationships with an incredibly important demographic: young people, especially young people of color and young people with disabilities.  Constantly keeping this in mind will only improve the current situation of the school-to-prison pipeline.

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About Josue Jimenez, Managing Editor Emeritus (18 Articles)
Josue Jimenez is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as the Managing Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. He is a Los Angeles, California native, but has lived in Charlotte, NC, since November, 2003. In 2013, Josue graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in Global Studies (Concentration in Politics, region Latin America) and Religious Studies (Focus on Early Christianity). From August, 2013- July, 2014, Josue worked as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm in Grand Rapids, MI. During the summer of 2015, he interned at Fayad Law, PC, where he worked on immigration and criminal defense cases. In the summer of 2016, Josue interned at the Charlotte Immigration Court where he prepared draft decisions for Immigration Judges on immigration matters including cancellation of removal and asylum applications. As well as, consulted with Immigration Judges and Judicial Law Clerks regarding pending decisions. During his final semester at Campbell Law Josue interned in the Legislative Analysis Division of the NC General Assembly. There, Josue assisted attorneys in the Division with numerous projects that dealt with constituent requests to pending legislation. These projects also covered a wide range of legal issues, ranging from multi-state surveys related to health and human services, agriculture, immigration, and aviation, to research on current state and federal law related to employment, local governments, veterans, immigration, and criminal law. Josue also served as the Vice-President of the Student Bar Association and a Peer Mentor during the 2016-2017 academic year.
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