It’s no surprise that Wayne LaPierre and the NRA think that increasing the presence of armed police and security in schools will be good for our children. More disturbing, however, is that Vice President Joe Biden and other key Democrats appear to agree. As reported by The Washington Post, recommendations coming out of the Gun Violence Task Force chaired by Vice President Biden are likely to include support for increasing the presence of police in schools. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has already proposed raising the allocation for the federal COPS in Schools program, a major source of funding to pay school police salaries.
But as extensive research has shown, such measures don’t make students safer. In fact, they endanger their futures by further greasing the notorious school-to-prison pipeline. Increasing police in schools results, for students, in increased contact with the juvenile justice system, deterioration in academic performance and greater dropout rates.
“Police in Schools are Not the Answer to the Newtown Shooting,” a report just issued by a broad coalition of civil rights organizations, educational leaders, advocates, academics, parents and students, offers a well-documented critique of the practice of relying on police and armed security for school safety. Produced by the Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools Campaign, Alliance for Educational Justice and NAACP LDF, it is the product of years of research, advocacy and the lived experiences of parents and children in schools, and provides sensible recommendations for keeping schools safe and supporting children.
Our own work at the Hazen Foundation has shown the pernicious impact of well-intended but poorly thought out efforts to keep children safe, particularly in schools. Ever since the use of so-called “zero tolerance” policies, police officers, and armed security in schools escalated following the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, students are increasingly being referred to law enforcement for behaviors that are more appropriately dealt with by school personnel. The research indicates that reported rates of theft and violence do not drop as a result of having law enforcement personnel in schools and, in fact, the presence of security guards can lead to more chaotic or disorderly conditions. School safety improves when students have trusting relationships with the adults in the building, not when schools resort to increasing police presence.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the impact is greatest for students of color, students with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education found that black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers and that students with disabilities were two times more likely to be suspended than other students. Whatever the cause of these disparities, research on adult responses to student behavior shows a correlation between the level of teacher experience, qualifications and other resources at the school and the way a school responds to safety problems: schools with more resources have more positive and effective responses and those with fewer resources are more likely to rely on punitive practices. In these latter situations, police may be substituted for counselors. Current federal policy encourages that practice, since funding for police in schools is readily available, while money to train teachers and hire adequate mental health personnel is not.
Given the direction of public policy following previous such occurrences, it is imperative that the laudable urge to avert the senseless slaughter of children not lead to policies that have a negative impact on students, schools, and communities. We have an opportunity to undo some of the damage done by well-meant but misguided policies implemented after Columbine. School based interventions such as Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports have been shown to reduce negative behaviors in schools. They create environments conducive to productive teaching and learning, help children develop problem-solving skills and take responsibility for being a part of a community that values every member. In schools implementing these and similar programs violence is reduced, suspensions and expulsions are down, and academic performance is up. Ensuring their replication and expansion will make schools both safer and more successful.
Increasing the presence of armed security and police in schools may ease the anxiety of parents and the general public, but it’s doubtful that it will mean an end to horrific events such as those at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary. What’s clear is that it will lead to negative consequences for vast numbers of our children.