The mainstream media are abuzz with possible justifications for the videotaped brutalization of a South Carolina high-school student by a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school. CNN analyst and former NYPD detective Harry Houck opined that perhaps she had it coming because she didn’t respect the authority of the officer. Sheriff Leon Lott went so far as to claim that the young woman punched the officer as she struggled against a chokehold and while being flipped upside down at her desk.
All of this, however, misses the point: A police officer had no business setting foot in that classroom in the first place. As the Justice Policy Institute pointed out in an exhaustive 2011 study, we should “remove all law enforcement officers from schools.” Abundant research shows that having police in schools does nothing to reduce crime, contributes to an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and, most importantly, is at the center of the criminalization of young people of color.
Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion in the number of police officers stationed in schools. This has been one of the most dramatic and clearly counterproductive expansions of police scope and power in postwar America. In 2009, The New York Times estimated that there were more than 17,000 school-based police officers. According to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, 28 percent of all schools now have armed security officers assigned to them.
While the origins of “school resource officers” (SROs) can be traced back to the 1950s, there was a dramatic change in their number and focus in the 1990s—thanks in large part to the Justice Department’s “COPS in Schools” program, which gave out over $750 million in the late 1990s and early 2000s, resulting in the hiring of an additional 6,500 new school-based police.
This increase in the number of school-based police is tied to a variety of social and political factors that converged over the course of the 1990s. First was the emergence of the “juvenile superpredator” concept developed by conservative political scientist John DiIulio. In 1996, he argued that the United States was getting ready to experience a wave of youth criminality driven by the evils of the crack trade, high rates of single-parent families, and a series of racially coded concerns about declining values and public morality. He predicted that by 2010 there would be an additional 270,000 of these youthful predators on the streets, leading to a massive increase in violent crime. These young people were described as hardened criminals, bordering on sociopaths: “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless…elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Given these youths’ fundamental disregard for the welfare of others, DiIulio and others argued that there was nothing to be done but to get them excluded from settings where they could harm others, and ultimately to incarcerate them for as long as possible.