No one has to explain to me why police have become a routine fixture in many American schools. My skin still tingles when I hear the words Columbine; Sandy Hook; and Parkland. I get it. And on its face, it would seem to make sense: Armed police officers deployed at the ready may be in a good position to disrupt school shootings and minimize the potential loss of life. The problem is, from Newtown to Parkland, police presence in schools has not prevented or disrupted school shooting events. Any number of other measures could almost certainly reduce the probability of school shootings; but the routine deployment of police officers in schools doesn't seem to be one of them. So, when a recent Washington Post article questioned the value of “school resource officers” (a euphemism for police), it led me to revisit the roots of police sociology.
Egon Bittner wrote that we have police because “Something-ought-not-to-be-happening-about-which-something-ought-to-be-done…NOW!!” That is, under exigent circumstances, we call the police because they possess the general right to use coercive force; and in certain emergencies, we want to quickly mobilize that coercive authority to both personal and public benefit. But to the extent that school shootings are rare events (and they are rare), and to the extent that they have been largely unprevented by the presence of school resource officers, then it’s time to weigh the social costs against the benefits of deploying police officers in our schools. Perhaps the most intuitive “benefit” is, it can’t hurt, and it might help. But we should make no mistake about it: Police bring coercion with them wherever they go. And since schools tend to encounter relatively few incidents where “Something-ought-not-to-be-happening-about-which-something-ought-to-be-done…NOW!!,” they begin to widen the net of police coercion in ways that do hurt. Since schools tend to be relatively low-crime settings, the deployment of police in them often translates into the increased recording of “criminal” behavior, but for less serious offenses, particularly for students of color and those with disabilities. The routine presence of police officers in schools can turn Principal into Prosecutor and may accelerate the school-to-prison pipeline by criminalizing behaviors that were once managed by school administrators, parents, guidance counselors, and the school nurse.
It’s easy for school districts to accept some of the vast monetary resources the Department of Justice has allocated for School Resource Officers. But with that money comes the tendency to turn our educational institutions into detention centers. Schools should work to counter – not perpetuate – the current trend of both prosecuting juveniles and referring them to adult court at younger ages. Students – our children -- should be able to make mistakes in school without the constant threat of the criminal justice system waiting for them behind the Assistant Principal’s door. And for the majority of their mistakes, students should be disciplined for the sake of teaching, not arrested for the sake of punishment.
The routine deployment of police officers in American schools has brought with them Tasers, choke-holds, and arrests, with no clear evidence that they have made our school environments any safer. School boards and districts around the country should pressure the Justice Department to reallocate SRO funding to pay for more school nurses, teachers, and social workers so that they can more effectively respond to the immediate and pressing needs of our increasingly diverse and complex student population. Our children are not inmates; and our schools should not function as prisons. It is time for American school systems to recommit to education over custody as a primary mission. And that starts with taking police officers out of schools.
Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. @rjohnkane