Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students entering South High School.



After the 'Spring Valley' Video: The Roots of Police In Schools

By now, you’ve probably heard about the video of a “resource officer” at a high school in Spring Valley, South Carolina, brutally dragging a student out of her desk for using her cell phone in class. It’s horrific. We’re not embedding it here, as it may be triggering for some readers, but you can click here if you wish to see it.

The incident at Spring Valley further exacerbates the tension between white police officers and people of color, tying into the ongoing outcry and national protests against police brutality that have brought together activists and celebrities alike—we see you, Quentin Tarantino. While there are massive amounts of coverage regarding protests and rallies around the issue, the prominence of police in the education system has long been a mere blip on the radar of the national media.

Police officers have become a fixture in schools across the country, “protecting” students from threats and controlling their actions on campus. As the reactions to the Spring Valley incident go from disbelief to rage, it’s essential to look at the underlying epidemic of policing in schools. Disruptive behavior on campus has evolved to create a school-to-prison pipeline that’s as commonplace as standardized testing. Imagine a sequel to The Breakfast Club where everyone goes to jail instead of the library.

Tracing the Roots of “School Resource Officers”

A Kentucky State trooper stands outside of Southern High School in 1975.
A Kentucky State trooper stands outside of Southern High School in 1975.

Police officers began infiltrating schools during the same decade J.D. Salinger released Catcher in the Rye and the Polio vaccine was created. It all started in the late 1950s in Flint, Michigan. A “school resource officer” (hereafter referred to as an SRO) was assigned to a local school to help improve the relationship between local police and youth by serving as a teacher and counselor. It was deemed a massive success and, over the next several decades, officers were assigned to high schools and middle schools in ever-expanding numbers. The police-to-schools ratio boomed in the 1980s to help with drug-education programs to coincide with America’s new “War on Drugs” initiative.

The 1990s were an especially important decade for policing, because the officers began to stray from their nonviolent roles. Due to President Bill Clinton’s “tough-on-crime” laws, the police began to take on a more aggressive stance. Despite expansions over those two decades, the trend didn’t fully escalate into a violent epidemic until a pivotal moment in the late 1990s: the Columbine Shootings.

The Lingering Effects of Columbine on School Policing

School and other officials check names and release students to parents at a gate at North Thurston High School Monday, April 27, 2015, after a shooting at the school earlier in the morning.
School and other officials check names and release students to parents at a gate at North Thurston High School Monday, April 27, 2015, after a shooting earlier that morning.

On April 20, 1999, two teens went on a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. They killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves in a double suicide. The tragedy shook the nation to its core, and it prompted the government to aggressively expand its police presence in classrooms and hallways across the country. The Department of Justice Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) initiated the “COPS in Schools” (CIS) grant program in 1999 in response to Columbine, to theoretically help protect students from threats inside and outside of the classroom. From 1999 to 2005, CIS was granted $753 million to hire more than 6,500 SROs to take up permanent residence on campuses.

This move has led to safer campuses compared to past decades. Stats compiled by the Education Department showed that the rate of violent crime committed in schools has fallen to 52 incidents per 100,000 students in 2012, from 181 incidents per 100,000 in 1992. Yet, as this year has shown, we clearly still have a problem. I mean, I can link every word in this sentence to school shootings in 2015 alone. That’s as frightening as it is sobering for the prospect of continued increases in police presence on campuses. Violence isn’t the only factor that must be addressed—the boom of SROs has created a system of oppression that unfairly targets students of color.

A Look at the Stats from America’s “School to Prison Pipeline”

A Lawrence Police Department officer walks a narcotics dog down a school hall in Indianapolis.
A Lawrence Police Department officer walks a narcotics dog down a school hall in Indianapolis.

According to the most recent estimates by the  New York Times, over 17,000 police officers patrol schools and universities nationwide. This massive presence has led to an explosive uptick in youth arrests on the basis of zero tolerance policies, which send disobedient students straight from classrooms and hallways to courtrooms and jail cells—skipping principles’ and deans’ offices entirely.

Researchers have looked into the SRO classroom phenomenon and found that arrest rates are overwhelmingly higher for nonviolent offenses in classrooms—especially in the past decade. Nationwide reports aren’t readily available because of the lack of federal data on school crime rates, but focused research into counties and multistate sectors of the U.S. have turned out the same results: arrest rates have skyrocketed for minor offenses and they consistently target people of color. According to a report by The Justice Policy Institute (JPI), one study in a Southeastern school district “found that schools with SROs had nearly five times the number of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO,” while others in Florida, Denver, and Chicago came to the same result. Adding to the problem is the glaring disparities in racial targeting that affect the spread of SROs. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that schools where at least half of the children are nonwhite, as well as high-poverty schools, are home to the highest percentages in the country of K-12 campus law enforcement.

Official numbers are sorely lacking on this issue because, like all crime stats in America, participation from local law enforcement and courts is voluntary, so it’s not possible to know with any accuracy how many Americans are arrested in any one year. This is especially alarming because of the lifelong side effects that come from arrests. According to research from JPI, youth with court records are more inclined to drop out of high school. Those arrested likely experience immediate and long-term negative employment and economic outcomes, and are more likely to be arrested again in adulthood.

Pushing for Change After the Spring Valley Incident

Ahmed Mohamed, 14, was arrested for his homemade clock because it was mistaken for a bomb.
Ahmed Mohamed, 14, was arrested for his homemade clock when it was mistaken for a bomb.

The education system has shifted from a place of knowledge and freedom of expression, to one riddled with police and unjust criminal records for ridiculous “offenses.” At Enloe High School, a senior prank water balloon fight ended in eight students and one parent being arrested. Twenty-four officers were dispatched to restore order. A four year old with ADD in a Pre-K classroom at Nathanael Greene Primary School threw a tantrum that led to him being handcuffed and put in leg shackles. Of course, we all know the story of Ahmed Mohamed’s homemade clock, a clever invention that was mistaken for a bomb and led to his arrest. But do you know about the fourteen-year-old student facing assault and battery charges for throwing a baby carrot at her teacher?

Shit is hitting the fan in schools these days, and it is crippling the lives of our nation’s youth. When you can be violently dragged from your desk because you refuse to stand up and let an officer arrest you for briefly taking out your cellphone, you should know there is something fucked up going on. Yet these overly aggressive incidents are still happening. Police officers have no right to enforce academic discipline on students through ticketing and court hearings, but until we rise up and speak up to raise awareness about this issue, students will continue to suffer.

Images via Star Tribune, AP Photo, Ted S. Warren, and Michael Conroy. 

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