In September of 2019, six-year-old Kaia Rolle was arrested at Elementary Charter School in Orlando, Florida for having a tantrum. She was charged with battery and taken to a youth detention center where she was fingerprinted and her mugshot was taken. Later that day, the same cop who had arrested Rolle arrested an 8-year-old boy. The incident was newsworthy, but not unique. In 2017, a Franklin, Indiana police officer arrested a nine-year-old boy with autism for fighting with another student. The child was charged with “battery and criminal mischief.”
Some tens of thousands of cops and security guards roam the halls of America’s 100,000-ish public schools. Schools that are majority black or hispanic students are more heavily policed. In the Southern and mid-Atlantic states, more than 90 percent of public high school students attend a school that has a police officer.
That wasn’t always the case.
Law enforcement entered schools en masse for the first time after the Columbine Massacre in 1999, which left 13 dead. According to Brooklyn College Sociology Professor Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, Columbine led to a fear of a generation of teenage “superpredators,” a term was coined by Princeton University Political Science Professor John J. DiIulio to describe a “new breed” of juvenile delinquents. Though most often deployed as racially coded language, the term was used to describe the white perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. Politicians elaborated. Senator John Ashcroft talked about “killers in the classroom” and “predators on the playground.” Fear pushed school boards to welcome cops, who were tasked with arresting misbehaving students or removing them from classrooms.
Despite the fact mass shootings are far more common in suburbs and in rural areas, most of today’s school cops work in urban districts and heavily black districts in particular. In Virginia, black children represent 39 percent of the school-aged population and 75 percent of those arrested by school resource officers. Those numbers are unexceptional. In Louisiana, black children represent 40 percent of the school-aged population and 69 percent of those arrested. In 28 states across the country, the share of black students who were arrested is 10 percentage higher than their share of enrollment in schools. In 10 other states, the share is 20 percentage points higher.
When cops are in schools, they largely do what they were trained to do. They don’t become friends with students. They don’t provide counseling or institutional support, much less teach them math. Though some cops work hard to integrate into educational communities, police are there to arrest and handcuff children. Cops arrest kids who won’t put their phone away. They arrest girls who violate dress code. They throw minors to the ground. All in, schools with police reported 3.5 times as many arrests as schools without police. School shootings continue.
What is interrupted by policing are the school lives of troubled children. Arrested kids are more likely to fail than flourish as they grow older. One study found that more police in New York City neighborhoods hurt the test scores of black male students; another found that adding cops to Texas schools led to declines in high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. Constant, negative interactions with cops help kids not trust authority figures or the institutions around them — and that also leads to distrust in schools and in teachers. One study noted that “high rates of direct or indirect contact with police may create stress…and emotional responses that undermine cognitive performance.” Limiting exposure to cops might be the only way that kids can succeed in schools.
Lots of kids don’t get arrested. They simply get removed from classrooms by officers, who have become the disciplinary force in schools where counselors don’t exist and teachers are overwhelmed and overworked. If suspension doesn’t sound all that bad, consider the fact that suspension was created in the midst of federal desegregation of public schools. Kids who are suspended and expelled or, in the most extreme cases, are taken to jail, struggle to get back on track. A single suspension can decimate a child’s educational achievement and growth by nine points over an achievement growth timeline; it will make children more likely to drop out of school and wind up in the criminal justice system. The Civil Rights Data Collection found that black kids are punished or excluded from classrooms at much higher rates than their peers, even when controlled for all variables.
Plenty of schools have adopted harsh disciplinary policies, often referred to as zero tolerance policies by school officials. The theory behind the policy suggests that higher levels of discipline create more obedient students, who will see the punished student and behave more appropriately. But these policies look far more like “Broken Windows” than community policing.
Under Broken Windows programs, most popularly first utilized by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, people are arrested and charged for minor crimes like vandalism, drinking in public, evading public transportation fares, or simply existing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kids get broken windows in miniature: They’re excluded from the opportunity to be educated when they misbehave. In schools with zero tolerance, students of color face more extreme and more frequent punishments for minor infractions. Black students are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. One study found that even one suspension doubles the risk of a child repeating a grade. Kids who get permanent records in school under zero tolerance policies are less likely to get into college, secure high-paying jobs, or access to other educational opportunities. One out of five middle schools in the country follow zero-tolerance policies.
The Broken Windows policing theory suggests that punishing citizens for minor infractions lowers overall crime by disincentivizing people from committing said crime. They see others get arrested and decline to commit crimes. That theory made its way into public schools. But, based on the statistics of who gets punished in these systems, there’s really only one community that gets policed under broken windows, zero-tolerance policy: people and kids of color. That’s a problem.
“We need a dramatic reduction of the role of the police in the lives of these young people, not an expansion of their role into more aspects of their lives,” Vitale says. “Policing is never going to be able to fully overcome its structural role as a coercive force.”
There are things that would help students, however. According to the ACLU, 1.7 million kids are in schools with police officers, but no counselors. Three million kids are in schools with police officers, but no nurses. Seven million have officers roaming the halls but no psychologists, 10 million police, but no social workers. Fifteen million American kids don’t have access to a counselor, to a nurse, to a social worker. All they have access to is punishment if they step out of line. By removing the punishment, and filling schools with the helpers, American schools could change — a change that is long overdue.