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Does America Really Need More Cops in Schools?

Even before Newtown, more cops were patrolling our schools. Parents, judges, and civil libertarians give them failing grades for treating routine discipline like a crime.

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 7:00 AM EST

This story first appeared on the website of the Center for Public Integrity.

In post-Newtown America, those with power say they must act to prevent another massacre of innocents.

The Obama administration wants stiffer gun control, and $150 million to help schools hire up to 1,000 more on-campus police or counselors, or purchase security technology. State legislators are considering shifting millions of dollars around to help schools hire more police. Some locals aren't waiting: The 5,500-resident town of Jordan, Minnesota, has moved its entire eight-officer police force into schools.

"The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun," National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said after a young man shot his way into his former grammar school on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 first-graders and 6 educators.

With the new year, the NRA has been flexing its political muscle, lobbying states not just to hire more school police—under the group's National School Shield project—but also to pass laws allowing teachers or other staff to bring licensed guns to school to defend their students and themselves.

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Beyond the headlines, though, the push for more cops or other armed security personnel in schools is running headlong into another movement that's been quietly growing in states as diverse as Mississippi, New York, Utah, Texas, and California. It's a push to get police out of schools, or at least to end their involvement in routine discipline matters that principals and parents used to address without involvement from law enforcement officers.

Civil rights groups and juvenile court judges—and even some officials within the Obama administration—argue that because the ranks of police began growing in schools in the late 1990s, the criminal justice system's involvement in student discipline has gotten entirely out of hand in some communities. That has put students, especially ethnic minorities, on a path to failure, they say—the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

In Los Angeles, for example, scores of students, most Latino or black and many just 11 or 12 years old, have been ticketed by school officers for minor infractions often categorized as disturbing the peace. In Austin, Texas, a 12-year-old was forced to court for spraying on perfume in class. In DeSoto County, Mississippi, officers and a school district were sued after a bus surveillance video—seen in part by a reporter—revealed officers unjustifiably arresting black students, the suit alleged, and threatening others with a "a bullet between the eyes."

Optimists—Education Secretary Arne Duncan among them—say cops in schools are not an either/or proposition: careful training, they say, will ensure that school police deployed in the wake of Newtown protect, rather than intimidate, students.

But many civil rights advocates are worried. They say plenty of cities and states are only beginning to come to grips with allegations that schools, and school-based police, have unjustifiably sent students into the criminal-justice system.

A Push for Security

Police presence in schools has been growing for years. The number of full-time city police officers assigned to schools increased nearly 40 percent from 1997 to 2007, according to the US Justice Department. One infamous incident fueling that rise was the 1999 massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two students at Columbine High School in suburban Denver.

From 2009 to 2011, police officers issued about 10,000 tickets a year to students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

After Newtown, though, an intense new round of calls for more cops in schools has echoed through small towns and big cities nationwide.

The state legislative delegation of Broward County, Florida, for example, quickly approved a proposal in January—it must now be approved by state legislators—that could allow increases in property taxes in Broward to pay for more school police, at an annual cost of up to $130,000 per officer.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research group, told the Center for Public Integrity that in February it began tracking a flurry of school-security legislation in more than 20 states.

Since January, two school-security bills in Mississippi, publicly backed by NRA representatives, have been moving fast through the Statehouse. One bill would set up a $7.5 million school-security fund to offer Mississippi schools $10,000 matching grants to hire police. The other bill, which Mississippi's House of Representatives approved February 13, would allow districts to designate teachers or other school staff to act as a secret defense force in the event of an attack. Volunteers would take their own licensed, concealed weapons to school. The House rejected a proposal to require psychological evaluations of those designated by districts.

Alabama legislators are considering creating a lottery to pay for a $20 million plan to put police officers in every school. Indiana lawmakers are weighing a proposal to set aside $10 million to offer grants to schools to hire local police to post in schools. States where legislators have introduced proposals to allow designated teachers or other school staff to be armed include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Texas and Utah already allow licensed gun owners to take weapons onto campuses under certain circumstances. Legislators in those states are discussing ideas for supporting school staff who want to have weapons at school for defense.

The NRA isn't alone in trying to influence the debate. The Alabama-based National Association of School Resource Officers, or NASRO, is pushing for more law enforcement in schools. NASRO opposes arming teachers. Stung by criticism of resource officers, the nonprofit NASRO vigorously disputes the idea that a school-to-prison pipeline is pervasive. In "To Protect and Educate", a report issued last October, NASRO said: "Attacks against the school resource officer are superficial and polemical." On a Facebook page, NASRO has posted multiple news reports about school resource officers foiling violent acts by students.

Kevin Quinn, president of NASRO, said in an interview that NASRO regards cases of abuses by school police to be isolated. "The No. 1 way to combat that is training," said Quinn, a school resource officer in the Phoenix area. Quinn agreed with civil rights advocates that some school districts have become too reliant on police to enforce discipline. Over the last decade, more schools have adopted "zero tolerance" polices, not just for guns or other weapons or drugs, but for behavior that's seen as disorderly or defiant.

"The problem," Quinn said, "is the school at times says, 'Oh, we've got a cop. Let him take care of things.'"

Out of Hand?

Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske, of Clayton County, Georgia, is not against police in schools, but firmly believes that a school-to-prison pipeline exists. When Teske took the bench in 1999 in his Atlanta suburb, which is 66 percent black, one-third of the cases in his court were kids referred from schools. By 2004, he said, 92 percent of the 1,400 cases in his court came from schools, mostly for alleged disruption and disorderly conduct.

A lawsuit accuses New York cops of violating students' rights by using excessive force, handcuffing and arrests in response to infractions such as drawing on a desk.

Lt. Francisco Romero, Clayton's school resource officer at the time, told the Center for Public Integrity that he was disturbed to discover that one year he arrested more people—students—than any other officer in Clayton. Fed up, Teske called together school and police leaders and hammered out a protocol requiring counseling and clear warnings before students were sent to court. Teske credits the protocol with improving relationships between students and police, and driving down juvenile felonies by 51 percent and increasing graduation rates by 24 percent.

"If police are placed on campus without written protocols defining their role, the results will be disastrous—just as removing existing police from campus can have unintended consequences," Teske wrote in the publication Youth Today after the Newtown killings.

Judith Browne Dianis, codirector of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group urging discipline reforms, said that after the 1999 Columbine shootings, police citations of students in the city of Denver skyrocketed. Student referrals to police increased by 71 percent between 2000 and 2004. Only 7 percent of referrals to law enforcement from Denver's schools, whose students are mostly nonwhite, were for serious offenses such as carrying a weapon.

In February, Denver school and police officials signed an agreement that obliges school police to "de-escalate" conflicts, attend training sessions on child psychology and embrace "restorative justice," which requires students to sit down and resolve problems outside the criminal court system. Dianis, whose group collaborated on the Denver agreement, hopes Denver's decision influences other jurisdictions as they weigh putting more police in schools.

In Los Angeles—home to the country's largest school police force—school leaders, judges, police and civil rights activists have been holding a series of meetings to work toward a protocol for student citations and arrests.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed Los Angeles Unified School District Police records and found that from 2009 through 2011, officers issued about 10,000 tickets a year to students, mostly in low-income neighborhoods. More than 40 percent of citations, the Center also found, went to students 14 or younger in schools that parents said were more heavily policed. Juvenile court judges complained about a parade of children in court for infractions better dealt with at school.

Reconciling such findings with current security concerns is difficult, concedes Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Racial Justice Program. Parker said it sounds "callous" to protest placing more police in schools after Newtown, a town that immediately after the December massacre assigned officers to guard schools. But one of the ACLU's high-profile lawsuits involving schools right now accuses New York City police—whose ranks have grown in schools by 73 percent since 1998—of violating students' rights by using excessive force, handcuffing and arrests in response to infractions such as drawing on a desk.

"It's very likely that officers dealing with children in Newtown will deal with them differently than children in Harlem," Parker said. "It is likely to be more of an 'Officer Joe, your friend,' who is there than someone who tells you to stand up against a wall and spread your legs."

New York City police administrators insist that officers have lowered crime in schools and say that the ACLU "talks about arrests in schools but, conveniently, not crimes."

On December 13, the day before the Newtown killings, Parker's Racial Justice Program filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of ethnic-minority students allegedly rounded up by police in December 2010 at West High School in Salt Lake City. The school district and the Salt Lake City police said they could not comment, because of a policy not to discuss pending litigation.

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