Indivisible’s Position Paper on School Resource Officers

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The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis has once again focused national attention on systemic problems of police overreach, brutality, and lack of accountability. Around the country, school districts are acting to sever their relationships with local law enforcement, in order to protect our teens and tweens from the risks of exposure to the police and criminal justice systems.

As parents and community members of the Lake Washington School District, we are asking LWSD to demonstrate our community’s commitment to social justice and racial equity by ending the SRO program in our schools. It is time to stop spending our limited educational resources on armed police presence, and instead invest that money in behavioral health services and restorative justice practices that genuinely keep our students safe while affirming their rights and dignity.

Benefits and Risks of SRO Programs

SRO programs spread through the US in the 1990s and 2000s, tasked with decreasing criminal activity on school campuses and preventing school shootings. However, research has consistently failed to find evidence that SRO programs decrease either school shootings or general school crime. (See, for example, “The Impact of School Policing,” “Does more policing make middle schools safer?”, “What do we know about the effects of school-based law enforcement on school safety?”.)

Meanwhile, research has found serious downsides to SRO programs. In many districts, introducing SRO programs has greatly increased the number of at-risk students who enter the criminal justice system. We commend LWSD on the steps it has taken to mitigate these risks, including keeping school discipline in the hands of school staff. However, studies find that SRO programs create a school-to-prison pipeline even in districts where steps are taken to ensure not all school behavior problems are reported as crimes (Students, police, and the school-to-prison pipeline).

SRO programs can even decrease students’ academic performance. A recent quasi-experimental study in Texas found that “exposure to a three-year federal grant for school police is associated with a 2.5 percent decrease in high school graduation rates and a four percent decrease in college enrollment rates” (Patrolling public schools). The same month, a New York City study found that greater exposure to community policing significantly decreased Black boys’ test scores (Aggressive policing and the educational performance of minority youth).

Given this research, SRO programs can no longer be considered an evidence-based best practice. The benefits simply do not outweigh the risks.

Advocates of SRO programs may point to less-tangible benefits, such as positive mentoring relationships between students and police. We recognize that SROs can and have made a positive impact in the lives of some of our community’s young people.

However, we also have to take seriously what activists and policy experts of color tell us about the negative intangible effects of overpolicing on Black youth and other youth of color (particularly children with undocumented family members). “It’s a very specific group of people who feel safe with police, but most black and brown children do not feel safe with police in schools,” says Jackie Byers, executive director of the Black Organizing Project.

Closer to home, one King County student said, “School seems like a prison. You have police. You have all these security guards. There are security cameras everywhere you go, in your class and even outside the bathroom. They treat you like you’re always about to do something. It feels like everyone has it out for you” (Students not suspects).This certainly does not describe the learning environment we want for our children.

Alternatives to SRO Programs

Happily, we do not need to maintain a full-time armed police presence in our schools in order to keep our students safe and ensure they have positive mentoring relationships with professional helpers. Alternative programs, such as social-emotional learning programs and positive behavior management strategies have been shown to increase school climate and decrease problematic behaviors (School Resource Officers). The Dignity in Schools campaign, among others, has written many model policies detailing how to implement school safety and behavior policies without subjecting our students to unnecessary policing (Why Counselors, Not Cops?). School counselors, social workers, and other behavioral and emotional health professionals play a crucial role in ensuring safe schools and crisis response. By reinvesting our SRO budget in social workers, we can ensure that students facing behavioral and emotional challenges continue to have positive role models and mentors in the school. Unlike SROs, mental health professionals are trained in helping students learn prosocial strategies for dealing with their problems, using approaches that are strengths-based, culturally appropriate, and trauma-informed.

Refocusing resources on mental and behavioral health programs has additional benefits, too. The ACLU points out these programs can protect students from depression and suicidality — dangers that are far more likely than a school shooting (Cops and no counselors). LWSD currently falls far short of the American School Counselor Association’s recommended 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio, making this an important place to invest our limited school resources (State by state student-to-counselor ratio maps).

Our tweens and teens who are struggling with behavioral and social/emotional challenges deserve to be aided by well-trained mental health professionals, not armed law enforcement.

Let’s use this moment to reexamine what really keeps kids safe in school. Let’s commit our resources to truly effective ways to help them learn and grow.

We call on Lake Washington School District to:

  1. End the regular presence of sworn officers and armed security in LWSD schools.
  2. Reallocate this funding to school counselors, social workers, and other positive behavior intervention.
  3. Terminate all current memoranda of understanding with local law enforcement and replace them with agreements that severely restrict the circumstances under which schools can allow police into schools.
  4. Form a task force to examine Dignity in Schools’ model code, and to propose modifications to LWSD policy to bring us into alignment with practices that avoid criminalization of students and protect them from unnecessary entanglement with law enforcement.

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