Chris Opfer is a writer and attorney in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice and Pacific Standard, among other publications.
As classes resume, school districts around the country try different approaches toward police on campus.
As students start heading back to school, they'll find freshly decorated halls, new lockers to decorate, and teachers asking about their summer reading assignments. In some areas, they’ll also be greeted by metal detectors and armed police officers, including at a least a few toting semiautomatic assault rifles.
A new school year means new questions about the role of police in classrooms and the effect of officers on everything from campus security to students’ prospects for spending for a life behind bars. School districts across the country spent their summer breaks grappling with the issue. While they’ve come up with varied approaches, many of the plans aim to achieve two overarching goals: decreasing arrests and enhancing relationships between cops and kids.
In May, the Oakland Unified School District’s school board passed a measure limiting police activities on area campuses after a resource officer—the title often applied to cops in schools—was caught on camera smacking a paraplegic high-school student and shoving him to the ground. Surveillance video of what Oakland High School principal Matin Abdel-Qawi later called a “disturbing incident” shows the officer, who was fired and criminally charged, violently throwing the then-17-year-old student, who uses a wheelchair, to a hallway floor and then hovering over him menacingly as others looked on.
The new policy is intended to limit interactions between students and school resource officers (SROs) assigned to campuses by “reducing reliance on police for disciplinary and/or minor offenses.” It clarifies that enforcing school disciplinary codes is a responsibility for teachers and administrators, not the police officers assigned to patrol district high school, middle and elementary campuses. The policy also states that these officers should exhaust alternatives to arrest—warnings, counseling, community service, mediation—before slapping the cuffs on a kid busted for “low-level” offenses like fights or possession of alcohol or marijuana.
The approach tracks similar moves throughout the state, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco, focused on reducing arrests on school grounds for behavior that’s best handled in-house. Supporters say that a heavy police presence on campus may potentially lead to more arrests for lower-level infractions that would otherwise be punished by after-school detention or suspension. These arrests often come with a wide racial disparity and can serve as a "pipeline to prison," by funneling students out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system where they are more likely to spend their formative years behind bars.
“It’s not only about reducing violence in schools,” San Francisco Unified School District superintendent Richard Carranza says of a memorandum of understanding reached earlier this year between the district and the San Francisco Police Department that explains the role of local cops in schools. “We also want to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of our students.” Carranza says that the MOU memorializes practices that have been in place for the last four years, during which he says arrests in district schools are down by 58 percent.
At first blush, these hands-off approaches to school policing seem to be in stark contrast to efforts elsewhere in the country to beef up officer presence in local schools. In Oklahoma City, for example, school officials recently reached a deal to assign eight cops to work the school district’s 55 elementary schools. Rod McKinley, Oklahoma City Public Schools’ chief human resources officer, says he decided to hire the officers in response to security concerns on certain campuses.
Oklahoma City School officials reported more than 700 fights in elementary schools during the last academic year, according to The Oklahoman. McKinley said things had gotten so bad on some campuses—where the overwhelming majority of students live in poverty and gang activity is “rampant”—that substitute instructors refused to work at those schools.
“When you have the police vehicle parked outside of a school, I think that’s a big deterrent,” McKinley says. “If there’s a fight that breaks out, I’d rather have a school resource officer breaking it up than a 95-pound teacher.”
Crime in schools across the country declined by 13 percent from 1992 to 2012 according to the National Center for Education Studies. Yet 12 to 18 year olds remained nearly one-third more likely to be victims of criminal activity on campus than on the street.
McKinley says that the Oklahoma City program is also designed reduce arrests and to develop positive relationships between officers and students. Like in Oakland and San Francisco, he maintains, officers’ primary role is to ensure safety and enforce criminal laws rather than act as a school disciplinarian.
“What this does is get the officers out and about and visible in the schools,” McKinley says. “The main thing is for young kids to have their first dealings with officers not on the street, but in the classroom.”
Kevin Quinn is the president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, an organization that trains police officers to work in school settings. He says the number of cops that the organization trains each year has doubled since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Quinn was critical of the “pipeline to prison” theory in testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee just days before Sandy Hook, but he said he agrees that SROs shouldn’t be involved in disciplinary matters.
“At no time should school resource officers be handling student discipline,” Quinn says. “The SROs get involved when it’s a matter of criminal activity.” Instead, according to Quinn, they should be ensuring safety and acting as a counselor of sorts to “bridge the gap” between students and police.
Just where you draw the line between a student who needs to be sent to detention or suspended and one who is engaging in criminal activity punishable under the law seems to depend on the school district. Carranza said he expects physical altercations and the possession of weapons, drugs, or alcohol to be reported to the police. But that doesn’t mean these incidents will result in an arrest. The MOU provides for a sliding scale of discipline in which students who commit low-level offenses like battery are subject to admonishment, counseling, and community service for their first and second infractions before being referred to the juvenile justice system for additional offenses.
“We want to ensure that when police interact with students, it’s generally a positive experience,” Carranza says.