Don't defund all police, but keep police out of schools. Kids will do better without them.
Education needs to shed school resource officers and the criminalization of student misconduct. This would be an investment in success for all kids.
“Defund the police,” the latest chant heard from the throngs of irate demonstrators in cities across America, means very different things to different people. Obviously, there are many tasks — routine and emergency — that unarmed civilians are poorly equipped to shoulder, including traffic stops and domestic violence calls. There is, however, at least one area where eliminating police involvement has significant advantages without risking public safety.
Schools have been closed for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When they reopen in the fall, let’s leave the police, specifically school resource officers, out of the picture.
Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler has already announced his plan to drop the assignment of SROs, whose numbers and presence mushroomed in the 1990s as part of the federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) initiative. More important, Wheeler’s approach makes sense, assuming that SROs are replaced with social workers and guidance counselors who are better able to deal with the wide variety issues that arise in schools. Plus, these professionals come at a lower price.
Schools are safe without police
Schools are safe, safer in fact than they’ve been for decades, and not because of the presence of an armed police officer in the hallways. Rather, schools provide structure and supervision that many kids lack during their out-of-school hours.
Although SROs may give parents some sense of comfort that their children are protected while at school, students actually face certain perils because of constant police presence. The well-traveled school-to-prison pipeline has been documented by research in terms of greater reliance on the justice system in response to student infractions, especially for minority youngsters.
The placement of tens of thousands of police officers in public schools has resulted in the prosecution of normal childhood behavior. Being arrested for disturbing assembly and fighting at school has supplanted the opportunity for using these incidents as teachable moments of positive socialization. The criminalization of student misconduct should give way to informal alternatives, such as in-school detention for minor transgressions and restorative justice for interpersonal conflict resolution.
Ex-cop, ex-FBI and black:I understand the anger but don't defund police. It could make things worse.
More generally, SROs limit students from developing a strong relationship with the school staff by acting as a disciplinary buffer zone. Learning appropriate interpersonal behavior and respect for rules is an important aspect of a child's education — especially for those who do not learn critical social skills at home — not an opportunity to be targeted and tagged by police.
Cops can still have role in education
Rethinking the wisdom of having officers assigned to schools does not mean that they have no place in the educational process. School personnel are not trained to deal with serious forms of misconduct, just as cops are not trained to deal with the day-to-day issues of children. Police need to maintain a close working relationship with schools, but not directly with the students.
Some may argue that the threat of serious violence in schools, including active shooter events, necessitates having SROs ready to fight firepower with firepower. After all, we are no longer dealing with the youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s, when a hallway rumble was the greatest peril.
Removing SROs does not make students and faculty more vulnerable. There are many more subtle ways that schools can protect children and adults alike — for instance, acoustic gunshot detectors to improve police response in the unlikely event of attack, and building design features that limit intruder access — without relying on Officer Friendly, who by virtue of his or her role and training responds to minor altercations and rule violations in an overly punitive fashion.
Public education needs to shed SROs, just as many schools have moved away from punitive zero-tolerance policies. This would be a concrete step toward investing in the future success of all children.
Despite the justifiable anger of protesters directed squarely at the police, we must avoid the prospect of having crime victims suffer or die needlessly because of limited police resources and slowed 911 response times. We must heed the old adage about tossing babies out with blue bath water. But we should trim police staffing levels by reassigning certain activities to better-qualified specialists, who are not furnished with a gun and badge.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox. Aviva M. Rich-Shea is chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Massasoit Community College.