Skip to main content

Policing in schools: Redefining public safety to be supportive & healing, instead of punitive & criminalizing


A recent video, shared on the national news, shows a 16-year-old Florida student being slammed to the ground by a police officer working at her school. It’s one of many such incidents of school-based police violence against students captured in videos around the country. Some of the victims are as young as five years old.

About 47% of U.S. schools employ armed police officers, known as school resource officers, who are there to keep students safe. But students who attend these schools often feel anything but safe.

“I just felt like [the presence of police officers at school] yelled danger, danger, that something's going on,” said one student interviewed for a report on police-free schools in Fresno, California. Since armed police officers had frequently paid visits to his home when he was growing up, “It would just always make me think of those times,” the student said. “I had a couple anxiety attacks seeing cops on campus, because it made me straight up think about that stuff, and I just felt really unsafe.”

That student’s reflections framed the discussion in a recent webinar about efforts underway in the U.S. to remove police from schools and reinvest the money into programs that support students’ mental health and foster healing environments. Speakers at the webinar, entitled School Policing as a Public Health Issue included Christine Mitchell, senior research associate with Human Impact Partners in Oakland; Jessica Black from the Oakland-based Black Organizing Project; and Marisa Moraza, with Fresno Barrios Unidos.

Human Impact Partners and Fresno Barrios Unidos researched the issue of police in schools for a report for the Fresno Unified School District. Mitchell said the data shows that police presence is rooted in systemic racism.

“Police are disproportionately employed in schools with large populations of Black or Latinx students. And we see that bear out in arrests and suspensions, with Black and Latinx students making up 70% of school arrests and referrals to law enforcement,” she said.

To illustrate how police presence creates a hostile environment for students, Mitchell relayed a couple of examples from the report. Most of the students in the Fresno schools are Hispanic or other ethnic minorities.

“One student said [a student resource officer] on campus said to her, ‘I arrested two girls yesterday and I wouldn't mind making it three.’ Another said: ‘They recommended [that I go] to a continuation school because I was one of those kids that wasn't going to accomplish whatever it was in a traditional high school, because I carried a pocket knife for my safety.’” Another student, said Mitchell, told researchers that “SROs look at me differently because they knew I had been in trouble in school. I felt like they were a threat to me; the way they would look at me and talk to me made me feel like I was doing something bad all the time.”

One obvious question is whether any data show that police presence actually makes school environments safer. Mitchell points to some of the understandable rationales for police in schools, such as helping prevent mass shootings, but she said that argument holds little weight because mass shootings are rare compared to students’ daily interactions with officers.

“We also know that young people who are stopped by police anywhere report symptoms of PTSD and emotional distress. But young people who are stopped in their schools specifically reported higher levels of these symptoms compared to being stopped in any other place,” she said.

The Fresno report is grounded in the understanding that many students who attend schools with police presence are already trying to manage trauma that they’ve experienced as a result of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, including adverse experiences in the community, such as witnessing violence or hearing gunshots in their neighborhood.

ACEs is a term that comes from the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente study that linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as experiencing physical, emotional or sexual abuse — with greater risks of substance use and other coping behaviors and health problems in adulthood.

The study, which looked at 17,000 adults, found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the population — have a 460 percent higher risk of depression and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs. (PACEs Science 101; What ACEs & PCEs Do You Have?)

The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of PACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.

Fortunately, brains and lives are remarkably plastic. The appropriate integration of resilience factors born out of PACE concepts — developing trusting relationships, having two adults outside of family who take a clear interest in you, enjoying community traditions, feeling a sense of belonging in high school — can help people improve their lives even if they have high ACE scores.

To create an environment that is healing and inspires a feeling of safety, Mitchell said, the team who worked on the report recommended that schools invest in trauma-informed mental health care, which she said is sorely lacking.

“Many schools either don't have counselors at all, or only have a counselor one day a week,” she said. “There is a very high student-to-counselor ratio. And we're specifically looking for trauma-informed counselors, counselors who can recognize the signs and impact of trauma and understand pathways to recovery.”

The report also recommends implementing schoolwide training in trauma-informed practices to entirely change the culture in schools. (As examples of trauma-informed schools see this story, this story and this story.

Mitchell and her fellow researchers also recommended:

  • Finding a better use for the $3 million spent on school policing in Fresno.
  • Implementing restorative justice practices. These bring together a person who was harmed and the person wh caused the harm to work with a trained staff member who facilitates healing and accountability.
  • Implementing transformative justice. This focuses on transforming both the individuals and the larger systems and structures that created the conditions for harm to occur.
  • Introducing a “cultural wealth model” in schools. This acknowledges the power of counter-narratives and directly counters institutional white supremacy by uplifting the stories, experiences, and narratives of students of color.
  • Investing in on-site student wellness centers, which provide physical and mental health care.

Success in Oakland: focus on culture and climate

While community-based organizations in Fresno are in the midst of pushing for removal of police officers in the public schools there, organizers in Oakland recently succeeded in getting the Board of Education to remove the law enforcement presence in Oakland’s schools.

Jessica Black, the Black sanctuary director with the Black Organizing Project, said her group has an agreement that ends the policing of their schools. What’s more, the agreement, known as the George Floyd resolution, includes broad community involvement in redefining what public safety means so that it is supportive and healing, rather than punitive and criminalizing.

The need for that change at school and beyond, she said, was based on recognizing how an armed police presence is a constant in a child’s daily life in Oakland, not just in school.

“If a child lives in a housing project, they can see school police there,” she said. They might also see city police en route to school, on the street, or another set of police on BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system that serves Oakland. “And if you think about those levels of encounters, and the trauma that exists, how students are feeling, that could be eight encounters with police on your way to and back from school.”

Oakland is not alone in taking police out of schools. Dozens of school boards around the country, from California to Vermont, are doing the same thing, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on justice reform.

Another example of the community’s success in Oakland is to ensure that mental health workers, and not police, respond to calls about mental health emergencies among students.

Instead of police being the first call for schools if there’s a mental health crisis, there’s now a new “culture and climate department” to replace what the school district referred to as a “discipline matrix.” School personnel will contact a liaison in the new department to deploy mental health workers.

Black and her co-organizers are clear that making that shift away from police is going to take time and work by all members of the community — parents, educators, students, and administrators.

The reason they’re taking a broader approach, she said, is this: “If we are just completely honest, we’re dealing with anti-Black racism. And we have to eradicate that mindset in order to see real results.”

In response to questions, the speakers provided the following tips:

  • Jessica Black said that when her group did outreach in the community and asked people what they thought about police in schools, “people did not want police in schools, but couldn't think of anything further. And so, part of [our work] is political education. The other piece of it is just providing that platform so that people could actually reimagine what it would be like to not have police at schools.”

  • Marisa Maraza from Barrios Unidos talked about the importance of educating the community and listening to the students. “It's about empowering youth to imagine, to be creative and to share their narratives of community and their peers because they do have the solutions. As was listed in the report, they are they are naming that they want school-based health centers, that they want mental health support, that they want peer support programs — they know what they need. So really, it is about creating platforms for them to share their experiences and engaging with other community members.”

  • A teacher asked Black for guidance on when to call police and when not to when issues arise in schools. “We created a police-free guidance sheet for schools,” Black said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all on school guidance, but a work in progress that includes suggestions like, police shouldn’t be called to campus for school fights, or even child-like [disruptive] behavior.” Black said the next phase will be getting input from students, parents, community members and educators. “And through that process, we’re going to figure out what we need to have police-free responses completely right.”

Here’s a replay of the entire webinar.

Add Comment

Comments (0)

Copyright © 2021, PACEsConnection. All rights reserved.
Link copied to your clipboard.