Updated: Oct 18, 2021
How do we protect students?
That question has been asked by many school boards, staff, and families across the U.S. in response to the rise of mass shootings in public schools within the past decade. Before the widespread closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even partially into the lockdown, there have already been 35 school shootings (on both college and K-12 school campuses) this year.
The first answer that might come to mind would be to put police officers in schools. Law enforcement officials for schools, also known as School Resource Officers (SROs), were first placed in public schools in the 1950s, although it was in the 1990s when they were implemented widely due to the fear of rising drug use among students. In fact, SROs were implemented before the infamous 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history that sparked conversations around restricting access to firearms and increasing security measures.
It was the war on drugs in the 1980s that spurred the use of “zero tolerance policies” and “broken windows” policing which SROs were used to enforce. These were policies that implemented concrete punishments (such as suspension or expulsion, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the act) when specific rules were broken by students due to the theory that strictly punishing low-level offences would later prevent more serious crime. They were mostly enforced in schools with large populations of minority or low-income students.
Bearing in the mind the history of SROs and the current conversation surrounding the fact that police and law enforcement hold biases against people of color, SROs and other law enforcement officers simply cannot stay in our schools.
As a high school student in Montgomery County, Maryland, it is not difficult to see how students of color are being targeted by the presence of law enforcement in their learning spaces.
The Maryland Safe to Learn Act was passed in 2018 following a shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, requiring all school systems in Maryland to report on the number of high schools with an SRO, or if an SRO is not present, how those schools collaborate with local law enforcement. In Montgomery County specifically, there is one SRO in every public high school.
The wealth disparity and remnants of segregation from Jim Crow laws have separated students based on race — upcounty schools are majority black and Hispanic while those in west-county are almost completely Asian or white. Many of the schools with high populations of marginalized students also happen to be ranked the worst in the county based on the state Department of Education’s accountability system. It is also mainly these schools in which SROs arrested more than 10 students in the 2018-2019 school year. While that may not seem to be much, countywide, black students made up 41% of arrests while only representing 21% of the student population.
Maintaining the SRO program puts students of color in a state of fear and disrupts their education while posing little to no threat to their white and Asian peers. African American and Latinx students are forced to tread more carefully in fear of being punished for actions that their classmates would get away with such as accidentally speaking over a teacher or even standing up for themselves to another student – any instance where teachers or administrators may perceive them to be aggressive or a “threat” due to stereotypes surrounding their race. A status quo that actively supports racial injustice in the public education system contributes to the broader issue of African Americans in the U.S. continuously being denied an equitable chance to achieve success. The notion that School Resource Officers protect students is one of ignorance, not only because they continuously target students of color, but because they do little to actually stop instances of violence, as seen by the fact that only two out of 200 incidents of gun violence on school campuses in the United States were stopped by SROs.
Investing in schools and communities with mental health resources and increasing the quality of infrastructure is where the solution lies. Breaking the cycle of violence that prompts students to act out and continuously encounter law enforcement is easily solvable by giving them ways to vent their frustrations and access the resources they need to succeed in schools. When asking how to keep our schools safe, students of color cannot be the expense.