The presence of police in schools, advocates say, makes arrests and referrals more likely, with results that can derail students’ lives. Photo by Alan Levine/Flickr
In 43 states and the District of Columbia, black students are arrested at school at disproportionately high levels, an analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center finds.
And one reason may be that black students are more likely than students in any other racial or ethnic group to attend schools with police, according to the analysis of 2013-14 civil rights data, the most recent collected by the U.S. Department of Education.
In most of the jurisdictions with disproportionate arrests of black students, the disparities are significant. In 28 states, the share of arrested students who are black is at least 10 percentage points higher than their share of enrollment in schools with at least one arrest. In 10 of those states, that gap is at least 20 percentage points.
No other student racial or ethnic groups face such disparities in as many states.
In Virginia, black students make up 39 percent of the enrollment in public schools with at least one arrest but 75 percent of school-based arrests. In Louisiana, black students comprise 40 percent of enrollment in schools with at least one arrest but 69 percent of students arrested at school.
Students from other racial and ethnic groups are also arrested at disproportionate rates in a smaller number of states. In Connecticut, for example, Hispanic students make up 25 percent of enrollment in schools with arrests but represent 35 percent of students arrested at school. And in Arizona, Native Americans comprise 8 percent of enrollment in schools with arrests, but 23 percent of students arrested.
Nationwide, black boys are at the highest risk, three times as likely to be arrested at school as their white male peers. And African-American girls fare little better: They are more than 1.5 times as likely as white boys to be arrested, the analysis shows.
In four states with disproportionately high arrest rates for black students, the gap between their representation in overall enrollment and in the share of students arrested is quite narrow—within 3 percentage points. In these states, black students make up a relatively low share of overall enrollment.
Nationwide, about 8,000 schools reported a total of nearly 70,000 arrests in the 2013-14 school year. Black students were more likely than their white peers to attend a school where arrests occurred. When black students’ share of arrests is compared to their overall enrollment in all schools, the disparities are even more severe.
And rates of student referrals to law enforcement show similar patterns of racial disparities at the state and national levels. Nationwide, black students made up 17 percent of enrollment in schools that referred students to law enforcement, but were 26 percent of students who were referred, the analysis found. Referrals, which are more common than arrests, are broadly defined as any time a student is reported to any law enforcement agency or official “regardless of whether official action is taken,” according to the federal data set. Referrals can include citations, court referrals, and, in some cases, arrests.
All of these findings mirror a host of persistent disparities for students of color, including higher rates of school suspensions, less exposure to experienced educators, and lower likelihood of access to rigorous coursework.
There is disagreement in the research and policy worlds about why certain groups of students are arrested at higher rates. Differences in local approaches to school safety and in exposure to out-of-school factors such as poverty and crime are among the reasons cited.
But civil rights advocates say students of color often bear the brunt of overly punitive zero-tolerance policies and state laws that can lead to arrests for relatively minor misbehavior, such as vandalism or classroom arguments.
And the presence of police in schools, such advocates say, makes arrests and referrals more likely, with results that can derail students’ lives.
“Far too often when police are consistently present in black and brown communities, they criminalize behavior they wouldn’t in other places,” said Allison Brown, the executive director of the Communities for Just Schools Fund and a former lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Especially for young people, that is just devastating to their chances for success,” she said.
A new era for school policing
Overall, student arrest and referral rates are relatively low compared to other forms of school discipline. Education Week’s analysis found that the arrests documented in 2013-14 represent less than one-tenth of a percent of students nationwide. In the same year, schools reported 223,000 referrals. The federal data do not specify why students were arrested or referred to law enforcement.
The findings come as debates about the role of police in schools—and communities—enter a new era.
While some civil rights and student groups argue that police don’t belong in schools at all, some school leaders, parents and police groups say they are necessary for security. Problems, they argue, can be avoided through proper hiring and training practices for school-based officers.
In the 2013-14 school year, schools reported 44,000 part-time and full-time onsite law enforcement officers, according to federal data. Researchers say the presence of officers in schools has increased in the wake of high-profile shootings—such as those at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut—that stoked widespread public fears.
Among 90,000 public schools, 29 percent reported at least one law-enforcement officer in 2013-14, Education Week’s analysis showed. That includes 46 percent of high schools, 42 percent of middle schools, and 18 percent of elementary schools.
Very little is known about school resource officers, typically the label given to police who work in schools—such as their backgrounds, their training, and the policies that govern their interactions with students. Only 12 states require specialized training for officers who work the school beat, according to a 2015 study by the American Institutes for Research.
Against that backdrop, President Barack Obama’s administration used its megaphone to draw attention to concerns that had guided the work of advocates at the state and local levels for years. The Obama administration attached new strings to federal grants used to hire school police—requiring schools to clearly define when officers should intervene with students and to set training requirements.
The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice delivered in 2014 their strongest message about what activists call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The agencies put schools on notice that their discipline policies and practices may violate federal civil rights laws if they lead to disproportionately high rates of arrests or suspensions for some racial groups, even if those policies weren’t written with discriminatory intent.
And districts must ensure that school-based officers don’t violate students’ civil rights—whether they are employed directly by the district or contracted through local police, the agencies said.
“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Conservative federal lawmakers pushed back against those warnings, however, saying that stance would force schools to avoid disciplining some students.
Before the public has had the chance to see whether those efforts—and parallel efforts in states and districts—have eased disproportionate discipline rates, President Donald Trump’s administration will begin implementing policies of its own. Trump’s team of advisers and Cabinet nominees have signaled plans to roll back the aggressive civil rights stance of the Obama years.
On the campaign trail, Trump, who pledged to be a “law and order president,” singled out largely black communities as dysfunctional and unsafe and cited school shootings as a reason to ease gun restrictions and increase security in schools. And in his first week in office, he seems intent on carrying out that pledge. The White House website includes an issue page on “standing up for our law enforcement community” that says: “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”
Trump’s education advisers have suggested the new administration will scale back the Education Department’s office for civil rights, which led much of the Obama administration’s work on intervening in districts with uneven discipline rates.
Debates over police in schools have run parallel to those about police on the street: In both settings, cellphone videos of violent encounters have spread quickly on the internet and fueled controversy.
Police shooting deaths of African-Americans, most of them unarmed, in communities across the country set off national protests and spawned a new movement of civil rights activism calling for dramatic changes to law enforcement and criminal justice. That movement helped accelerate momentum for changes to school discipline and safety.
But since Trump was elected, advocates have grown concerned about other issues, like climate change, said Phillip Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“On Nov. 9, policing in general went from the number-one domestic policy issue in the United States to the number-five issue overnight,” he said.
The federal data used in Education Week’s analysis was collected from nearly every public school in the country a few months before Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.
That encounter thrust into the broader public consciousness long-held concerns and anger in black communities about racial bias and inequities in policing and other institutions.
Similarly, scrutiny of the role of police in schools has accelerated since the public watched bystander videos that showed a South Carolina school resource officer dragging a girl from her desk after she refused to surrender a cellphone; a Baltimore officer who kicked and slapped a student accused of trespassing; and other hastily captured images of black and Hispanic students who were tackled, pinned down and arrested at school, sometimes for minor offenses.
Black students more likely to be in schools with police
Other high-profile incidents that weren’t caught on video have also heightened concerns about unjust or overzealous policing of students.
In Prince William County, Virginia, a 14-year-old boy was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and petty larceny last fall after a school-based officer accused him of stealing a carton of milk. The boy, who qualified for free lunches, said he had gone back to the cafeteria cooler to get the milk after he forgot to pick one up when he first went through the serving line.
In Kansas City, Mo., the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the family of a 7-year-old boy who was handcuffed by a school resource officer for disrupting his elementary school. The boy was crying loudly in response to a bullying incident, the lawsuit said, and an officer handcuffed the boy when he refused to follow directions.
In Alabama, a federal judge said Birmingham school officers used unconstitutionally excessive force when they sprayed students who were not resisting arrest or posing a threat to others with a mix of pepper spray and tear gas at school. In one of those instances, an officer sprayed a pregnant student who was already restrained with handcuffs. The judge ruled that in some other incidents the pepper-spraying was justified.
While violent interactions draw the most attention, advocates say their concerns about police in schools extend beyond those incidents and arrest rates, and into areas that data can’t quantify.
Measures like security cameras and police presence in schools have effects on students’ experiences that haven’t been fully documented, they say.
And what federal data don’t show are the daily, incidental interactions between officers and students in hallways, at metal detectors at school entrances, and in searches of students’ bags and lockers, those groups say.
The data also don’t show what schools lose out on when they channel funds toward law enforcement that could be spent on school counselors, social workers, and other student-support measures, those groups say. For example, an analysis of the 2013-14 civil rights data by the Education Department found that 1.6 million students attended schools with police but no school counselors and that those students were more likely to be Hispanic or black.
And, because students of color are more likely than their white peers to attend schools with on-site officers, policies related to those officers have become an equity issue, said Brown, of the Communities for Just Schools Fund.
Education Week’s data analysis found that 74 percent of black high school students attend a school with at least one on-site law enforcement officer, compared with 71 percent of both Hispanic and multiracial high school students, and 65 percent of both Asian and white high school students.
The disparity is more pronounced at the middle school level, where 59 percent of black students attend schools with law enforcement, compared with 49 percent of both Hispanic and multiracial students, 47 percent of white students, and 40 percent of Asian students.
A 2016 study published in the Washington University Law Review found that students were more likely to be referred to law enforcement for offenses like threats, fights, vandalism and theft at schools with law-enforcement officers who were on site at least weekly. That remained true even after authors controlled for factors like state laws that require schools to report certain issues to law enforcement, levels of criminal activity and disorder, neighborhood crime, and demographic variables.
School police need proper training
Supporters of school police say the incidents documented in viral videos are outliers and don’t represent the behaviors of most school resource officers. They argue that proper training and better vetting of officers in the hiring process can prevent such incidents from occurring.
Schools also need to set clear limits for officers on what types of incidents they can and can’t get involved with, said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides officer training.
NASRO has repeatedly taken the public position that officers should not be involved in school discipline. And racial and ethnic disparities in school arrest rates mirror disparities in law enforcement as a whole, the organization has said.
Law-enforcement agencies shouldn’t treat schools as a regular beat rotation without considering whether officers have the desire and knowledge to work in such a distinct setting, Canady said.
“I don’t care where the officer is coming from,” he said. “They shouldn’t be placed in there just for the sake of having someone there. That’s a mistake.”
There’s a difference between a general law-enforcement officer who works in a school and a school resource officer who has received additional training to work with students, even though the term is often used colloquially to refer to all school-based officers, Canady said.
NASRO’s training follows the “triad model,” which teaches officers how to serve in three roles in schools: as law-enforcement officials, as educators who teach students about subjects like the criminal-justice system or drug prevention, and as informal counselors and mentors for students. Such training is necessary, Canady said, to understand how students with disabilities interact with law enforcement, how to de-escalate conflict, and how teenagers’ brain development influences their behavior and impulse control.
In 2013, when Canady testified before a congressional committee after the Sandy Hook shootings, a lawmaker asked him if more schools should have school resource officers.
“We’re not calling for more police in schools,” Canady said. “What we’re asking for are the ones who go into schools to be properly trained.”