Expanding the Presence of Law Enforcement in Schools Takes Us Farther Off Course

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida shooting in February, legislators around the country have been working to do something to address the vulnerability of schools to such attacks. One answer? Put more police on school campuses.

Beefing up security in schools is a natural first impulse of a community that is fearful for the wellbeing and safety of students. But with intelligent regard for data and outcomes, American communities can do better than act out of fear. Adding more police may only make situations worse for vulnerable students, and may lead to worse short- and long-term outcomes for children of color, children with disabilities, and their families.

We have seen this kind of mistake before. The War on Drugs was declared in response to the “crack epidemic,” which we now know should have been labeled a public health crisis. As a fearful and uninformed society, we turned a health issue into an issue of criminality. As a result, we face a new crisis called mass incarceration and the criminalization of the poor.

In recent decades, we have used law enforcement interventions at all levels, from the DARE program for youth, to stop-and-frisk and broken window policing, to mandatory minimums and beyond. Each one of these interventions has since been proven to do more harm than good. We should have learned by now not to use law enforcement and the justice system as the one-size-fits-all approach to addressing challenging social issues.

The truth is, America already stations thousands of police officers in schools. More than a quarter of the nation’s campuses see a daily police presence. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland had an on-duty, armed guard on campus during the shooting, who did not intervene.

Analysis of the effects of police presence on educational institutions reveals a relationship at best complicated and at worst detrimental. Stationing police in schools has been shown to hurt relationships between students, and with their teachers and school administrators. Campuses serving predominantly non-white, and low-income populations are more likely to have a stationed “resource officer,” as armed police assigned to schools are called. When a resource officer is stationed on campus, schools are no less likely to see serious crime on campus, but students at these schools are much more likely to be arrested for non-criminal activity. Teachers are more likely to turn to law enforcement for behavior modification interventions than to use alternatives available to them, breeding a culture that is more punitive and harmful. This effect is called the school-to-prison pipeline, a known contributor to the over-incarceration of Americans, especially Americans of color, and those with lower incomes.

Lawmakers in all fifty states should take action to help keep children safe. However, proposals to spend taxpayers’ money on increased law enforcement presence in schools is rooted in irrationality and fear, not sensible thinking. The causes of school shootings are undoubtedly complex, but investments in health interventions and sensible gun policy promise to be more effective at decreasing school and other mass shootings. Adding reinforcements to the school-to-prison pipeline will just continue to ferry future generations down the wrong path, and do a disservice to us as a society. Instead of investing millions of dollars in interventions that have been proven not to work, states should invest in research to find out what does work and allow intelligence, rather than uninformed fear, to guide investment.

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