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Are School Police Feeding the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

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By Marquisha Spencer

By age 10, a young black boy with multiple siblings, raised in a single-parent home by a mother who did not complete high school, moves quite a bit, has incarcerated family members, and struggles academically is an ideal candidate for what is called the school-to-prison pipeline. Ten seems, to me, a very young and tender age to introduce thoughts of prison.

But these days, the streets aren't the only place youth are interacting with law enforcement and punishment; it's happening in schools too, where many youth spend more than 50% of their time.  Many low-income schools with large populations of students of color have school resource officers (SRO) on their campuses, increasing the possibility of student and police interaction.

In California, as in other states, police officers are stationed in schools and have direct contact with students, replacing educators and administrators as disciplinarians for minor offenses and behavioral issues.  A 2016 ACLU report states that on-campus policing often results in over-criminalizing students--especially low-income students of color.

Impacting Students of Color

School policing disproportionately impacts students of color. A recent study showed that campuses with larger populations of students of color are more likely to use harsh surveillance techniques, disciplinary actions and involve police in minor infractions.  Public schools serving primarily black and other nonwhite students commonly rely on more restrictive security.  This is the case even following highly publicized school shootings, according to a research paper by Jason P. Nance at the University of Florida.

Without meaning to, the state is supporting a predictable school-to-prison pipeline. The path to prison is not just about school police.  When young men of color enter school, they are likely to experience harsher discipline practices, being taught by unprepared teachers, being referred for special education, and a feeling of detachment from school.  We know the risk factors, and there's not enough being done to stop the feeding of young people of color into a judicial process that leads to incarceration.

The average arrest rate for students in California schools, where more than 80% of students are low-income, is seven times higher than the average arrest rate where fewer than 20% of students are low-income, according to the ACLU. In addition, students of color in California schools are referred to police for their infractions more than twice their white counterparts, increasing their chances of suspension, expulsion, probation, juvenile detention and/or prison. Furthermore, research shows, students entering the juvenile justice system through academic infringement are less likely to return to school, once their time has been served.

To gain a better understanding of school policing in California, I spoke with Professor Bruce Matsui, who has consulted and written about school policing and who is a former teacher and school administrator. Matsui noted that the biggest difference between good SROs and bad ones depends on school administrators.

Law & Order

He said, "Some administrators want Law & Order, and they create a culture of punishment which scares children with the police presence."  A punishment culture hurts schools more than it helps them, Matsui says. Furthermore, good SROs, in partnership with good administration can impact change in schools and create specific programs to assist the students who need help, rather than repeatedly discipline their behaviors.

Matsui recommended in-depth training programs, necessary to assist school officials and officers in defining and communicating clear expectations. Another program that has proven beneficial is restorative justice. Restorative justice is an opportunity to focus on the rehabilitation/helping of the offender, rather than justice by way of punishment. In such cases, the child (offender), the victim, school administration, officials (including the officer), and parents are all involved and working collectively to right the wrongs of any given occurrence. Most importantly, restorative justice programs, on average, yield reductions in recidivism compared to non-restorative approaches to behaviors.

Matsui offered two pieces of advice that administrators and other education leaders and police officers can take in order to create a culture that's mutually beneficial:

  1. Context is very, very important. District-wide approaches fail because the relationship between students, administrators, teachers, and SROs cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. This does not work! All districts and all schools are not the same.
  2. Organized communication is necessary from the outset. Administration, teachers, parents, students and SROs should all be on the same page before an issue occurs. Communication is key.

Increasing Concern

There is an increase in concern and discussion about policing in schools. Howie Knoff provides an extensive list of some of the most controversial examples of school resource officers (SROs), school-based police officers and/or school security staff.  He writes:

In March 2016, a Baltimore school district police officer slapped, kicked, and swore at a young black man outside a Baltimore high school, sparking a criminal investigation and cries for federal authorities to intervene. In October 2015, a video shows a SRO in South Carolina ripping a high school girl from her chair and body-slamming her to the ground after she refused to follow school rules. Also in October 2015, a 14-year-old Texas boy was choked to the floor by an SRO called in to stop a gym fight. In November 2014, a 52-lb 8-year-old Covington, KY elementary student—who suffered from ADHD and PTSD—was cuffed above the elbows for 15 minutes by an SRO because he was having some behavioral difficulties in his classroom."

Some Answers

I am a concerned doctoral student and mother of a young, black man.   I don't have all the answers, but I do have some.  Here are a few places that we can start:

  1. As detailed in Knoff's piece, we should include school resource officers in Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) required plans. ESEA/ESSA requires states to develop pathways of reduction for bullying, harassment, suspension, and expulsions. In this, the school-to-prison pipeline should be considered, and policies to directly impact reduction created.
  2. Training! Training! And More Training! There are only 12 states that have laws requiring training of school resource officers (SROs). On average, school resource officers receive only three days of counseling and education training prior to entering into the schools.  Even though many of them have years of police experience, more training is needed for school resource officers about creating a safe, cohesive and productive learning environment.
  3. Include school resource officers in open house events, parent and teacher associations, and other school-community related events so that students, parents, school administrators and teachers have opportunities to develop relationships with one another before disciplinary action is required.
  4. California schools should create alternatives to suspension and expulsion, such as restorative justice, for at-risk youth who are expected to have increased negative interactions with school resource officers.
  5. If nothing else, school and police officials should work to create a routine in which punishments fit the infraction.  As Matsui mentioned, context is extremely important!

 We need a more planned, comprehensive, and psycho-educationally-relevant process of hiring, preparing, deploying, integrating, and supervising SROs, school-based police and school security guards. The primary task, both Knoff and Matsui said, is to keep students, staff and schools safe, not to escalate routine disciplinary incidents to the point that they become criminalized.  I agree.

Marquisha "Mar" Spencer is a PhD student, research assistant and student-body president at Claremont Graduate University. Her research interests involve student and identity development, marginalized student populations and gender biases. Connect with her onTwitter: https://twitter.com/BrownGrlBloggin and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/__thekingsdaughter/

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