Story highlights

President Ronald Reagan first introduced idea of 'zero tolerance' in schools to target gangs, drugs

That approach has morphed over the years to cover less serious infractions

(CNN) —  

It seems to happen all the time. Police are called to a school to deal with students acting out.

Some snapshots from around the country this year: In October, in Chesterfield, South Carolina, police are called because of a fight. Nine students are arrested. In May, sheriff’s deputies use pepper spray to break up a fight at a Naples, Florida, high school. Three students are arrested and 21 students need medical care. In March, New York Police Department safety agents ask a student to remove safety pins holding his glasses together. When the student refuses, the officers reportedly tackle and arrest him.

What’s going on in America’s schools that necessitate seemingly so much police involvement? Could crime in our schools really be so rampant? During a week when the country repeatedly watched cell phone video of a student resource officer violently manhandling a South Carolina high school student, many are asking: What exactly is a school cop’s job and does their presence benefit teachers, administrators and students?

First, take a look at the numbers: They dispel the notion that schools are more violent than in the past or that police are called in more often.

In fact, each year between 1999 and 2010, the number of times police were called has remained fairly constant, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

On average about 60% to 65% of all public schools called law enforcement for violent incidents such as a rape, robbery with a deadly weapon or someone threatening an attack. Statistics for the same time period show that between 40% to 50% of the time public schools called police when administrators face less violent situations as pretty theft and vandalism.

Violent crime in schools has decreased over many years, said Annette Fuentes, who has studied the intersection of law enforcement and primary education for at least a decade and wrote “Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse.”

Though the numbers may be cold comfort for those who have lost a loved one to school violence, in 2014 – a year when about 50 million kids enrolled in U.S. public schools – there were 31 violent deaths on school campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Students’ perception that they’re in danger at school has also decreased, according to the center’s statistics. Between 1995 and 2013, the percentages of students who reported being afraid of attack or harm at school decreased overall, from 12% to 3%.

While school shootings make headlines, many are perpetrated by people who enter a school to cause bloodshed such as the mass killings at Sandy Hook, said Fuentes.

Those shootings are not justification, she argues, for constant harsh crackdowns by student resource officers – or police who work in schools – for infractions that happen daily.

The school resource officer program was never intended to deal with school shootings, said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers which trains thousands of school police.

“This is not a security guard program,” he said. “We aren’t supposed to be handling discipline issues either. We are there to build relationships with students, teach them about the law and serve as another trusted adult they can turn to.”

When SRO programs work, they can contribute to an overall decrease in less serious incidents in schools, he said.

It’s true that there has been a decline in those type of less serious infractions for more than a decade.

The rate for incidents that did not result in a death for 12- to 18-year-old students at school fell from 181 crimes per 1,000 students in 1992 to 55 per 1,000 students in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The nonfatal victimization rate away from school for these students also declined from 173 to 30 crimes per 1,000 students during the same period.

From the war on drugs to a crackdown on everything

When Fuentes saw the South Carolina video, she was appalled. But she wasn’t surprised.

“This is the environment that has slowly been building for years,” she said. “We have gone from viewing pushing and shoving in hallways as mischievous to being criminal acts.”

Read more: Police in schools - Why are they there?

The path to putting law enforcement in schools was paved by President Ronald Reagan. As part of the 1980s war against drugs campaign, his administration coined the term “zero tolerance.” That approach to school discipline was primarily intended to curb the increasing menace of gangs and narcotics threatening young people, she said.

The belief that zero tolerance could be applied to other infractions was bolstered when Bill Clinton was president and the Safe Schools Act became law.

Local schools were empowered to crack down on students for a range of behavior, Fuentes said, and some districts began to interpret zero tolerance more broadly, meting out harsh punishments like suspension or expulsions for fighting or violating dress codes.

But what began as an effort to help schools in urban areas morphed into approach that was often overly harsh, Fuentes said. “The kids who were criminalized were overwhelmingly black and Latino students,” she said. “What is clear is that kids who are punished disproportionately to their violation of school codes are more likely to drop out. Kids who are suspended are more likely to because drop outs. That means the risk of that kid growing up and falling into real criminal behavior is real.”

While black students represented 16% of student enrollment, they represented 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

The South Carolina student thrown to the ground was black.

The Los Angeles Times reported that those statistics were related to the city’s Unified Police District’s decision to stop issuing citations for fighting, petty theft and other minor offenses.

A different approach

Other schools across the country, mostly in cities like Oakland, California, and Chicago, have recently turned away from zero tolerance and started to approach discipline through conflict mediation.

“That approach is working because it addresses the root of the trouble, the reason why a child may be acting out,” said Nancy A. Heitzeg, a sociology professor with an expertise in race, ethnicity and the role of law enforcement in education. She teaches at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“We need to understand that in some schools kids are homeless, they didn’t have breakfast, some have incarcerated parents,” she said. “If we react to misbehavior in a punitive way, with suspension or expulsion, we’re never going to be able to not just help that student but help everyone who interacts with that person in life down the road.”

The radio magazine show “This American Life” delved deeply into why teachers are turning to models that build trust and mutual respect with students, and why that is getting them better results than the traditional zero tolerance approach.

Heitzeg and Fuentes point out that some schools are turning away from zero tolerance and heavy handed school resource officer involvement in relatively minor incidents because of money.

Many schools have faced budget reductions in recent years, they note.

“There are smarter, more effective ways to deal with an obstinate teenager than using force,” said Fuentes. “When I see what happened in South Carolina, I wonder what the teacher was thinking. Was he or she empowered to handle that on their own? Do they need more training? We should give any teacher the training they need. They are the ones who should control their classrooms.”