For Shavonda Sisson, the idea of police officers patrolling the halls of her son’s school is terrifying.
“I do everything I can to avoid police contact for myself and for my children,” said Sisson, whose son is a rising senior at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee. “I do not want my child involved with police, it can be a matter of life or death.”
In 2020, Sisson helped lead a group that successfully lobbied for the Milwaukee Public School District to terminate its contract with city police.
Sisson said she does not believe police should be settling disputes or disciplining students, particularly Black students, because it could lead to unnecessary arrests or use of deadly force. The controversial police killings of unarmed Black people and the police abuse of young Black girls in recent years is proof, she said.
Lawmakers’ calls to increase armed school police officers in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead have been rejected by parents like Sisson and experts across the country.
Critics say the presence of police in schools is likely to have a disproportionate impact on Black children who are referred to law enforcement and arrested at higher rates than White children for school-related incidents, national data shows.
Youth advocates fear placing more police in schools would only criminalize more Black students for incidents that could be diffused by school staff members. The strategy, they say, could potentially worsen the school-to-prison pipeline that has historically placed more students of color behind bars.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU New Jersey, said the presence of school resource officers creates an “illusion of safety” when in reality, it opens the door for police to turn minor classroom incidents into crimes. In many cases, students of color are more likely to be targeted just as they are in the streets, he said.
For example, an Orlando elementary school resource officer was fired in 2019 after he arrested a 6-year-old Black girl for having a temper tantrum.
And last month, the parents of a 10-year-old boy in Marrero, Louisiana, sued their son’s school district after police placed him in a chokehold and arrested him after he had an outburst. The child reportedly had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
“We would be foolish to believe that those same biases wouldn’t exist in the school setting,” Sinha said. “Black and brown children bear the brunt of criminalization.”
Lawmakers propose more police, but research says that won’t save lives
Sinha was among several groups that condemned Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy for his decision to increase law enforcement presence at schools following the Uvalde shooting last month.
Other lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, also spoke out about the need for more law enforcement officers at schools.
Last week, Graham suggested former military members be brought in to help patrol schools. He said he plans to create a certification process that would allow them to get school security training and be available to school districts.
Graham said in a tweet: “Our schools are soft targets. They contain our most valuable possession – our children, the future of our country – and must be protected. Schools should be treated like courthouses, banks, capital buildings, etc. when it comes to security.”
A day after the Uvalde shooting, Cruz said armed police officers should be assigned to schools to keep students safe. He told Fox News he proposed legislation that would provide federal grants to “harden schools” but it was blocked by Democrats.
“If those federal grants had gone to this school (Robb Elementary), when that psychopath arrived, the armed police officers could have taken him out and we’d have 19 children and two teachers still alive,” Cruz said.
But research disproves Cruz’s belief that more law enforcement saves lives.
A 2021 study of national school-level data from 2014 to 2018 by the University at Albany and the RAND corporation found that school resource officers reduce some forms of violence but they don’t prevent school shootings. School police do, however, increase suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and arrests, according to the study. The rate of punishment was two times higher for Black students than White students.
A 2018 Washington Post analysis found that school resource officers successfully stopped a shooter only twice out of nearly 200 incidents of gun fire.
“We continue to dump money and resources into something that fails 99% of the time,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice.
Notably, Scot Peterson, the school resource officer who was on duty during the Parkland high school shooting in 2018, faced felony child neglect charges for not immediately going into the school building to stop the gunman. Seventeen people were killed in that mass shooting.
Smith said police in schools create more fear than a sense of safety among some Black and brown students.
“Having the police officer there, they feel constantly watched and surveilled,” Smith said. “They see what they perceive to be unfair searches and seizures and (police) encourage students to inform on each other. It ends up creating an environment of fear and distrust.”
‘It’s not the right response’
Many youth advocates point to data that shows Black students are more likely to be punished by the police patrolling their school campuses.
According to the US Department of Education, Black students without disabilities made up 30% of school-related arrests in the 2017-18 school year when they were 15% of the public school population. White students without disabilities, meanwhile, made up 34% of school-related arrests and 48% of the public school population.
Additionally, the Center for Public Integrity found that in 46 states, Black students were referred to law enforcement at higher rates than all students.
Studies also show that young Black girls are often treated like adults during police encounters. A 2017 study conducted by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that Black girls as young as 5 years old are viewed as needing less protection and nurturing than White girls.
In many cases, the presence of police has had negative impacts on school climate and student success. Researchers have found that students exposed to school policing were subjected to unreasonable search and seizure, did not believe the officers cared about them and were less willing to confide in school staff when they were experiencing problems.
Yannick Wood, executive director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said placing armed officers in schools is a “knee-jerk” reaction to mass shootings that will have unintended consequences for Black and brown children.
Wood pointed to research that shows the presence of school resource officers results in more student arrests. He said they are the “entry way to the school-to-prison pipeline for Black youth.”
“Putting more armed police officers in the school, it’s not the right response” to mass shootings, Wood said. “It will perpetuate the misguided approach of turning our schools into fortresses and it will potentially traumatize our youth.”
Wood said gun control is a better solution to preventing mass shootings than school resource officers. He said civilians should not be able to legally purchase “weapons of war.”
“If officers are afraid to confront someone with an AR-15, then that’s a problem,” Wood said.
Sisson, the Milwaukee mom, said she decided to help lead the effort to remove police from the schools after years of hearing students complain about police using excessive force. She said she didn’t like that school staff quickly called on police to handle any sort of discipline. The officers, Sisson said, weren’t adding any value to the educational environment.
She urged school officials to divest those funds into mental health services for students. Sisson wants to see more social and emotional wellness programs and more counselors to help identify the warning signs in students who could potentially be violent or have White supremacist beliefs. She also believes schools should be helping students find social groups where they feel embraced and not bullied.
“People who insist on having more police are not worried about getting to the root causes of things,” Sisson said. “We know what creates safer communities, we know what creates safer environments and we know what creates great schools but those things are not being invested in.”