Just one month after the worst K-12 school shooting in American history, then-Vice President Joe Biden held back tears as he addressed a nation mourning the 26 people killed, most of them young children.
“We have a moral obligation — a moral obligation — to do everything in our power to diminish the prospect that something like this could happen again,” Biden said of the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. “The world has changed, and it’s demanding action.”
Part of that action, the Obama administration announced, was a plan to use millions of federal dollars to hire an additional 1,000 school-based police officers.
Several years later, campus officers returned to the national spotlight when a viral video showed a South Carolina sheriff’s deputy throwing a black student across a classroom. The incident prompted a national conversation on the presence of police in schools, particularly their disproportionate impact on students of color.
Now Biden is heading into a South Carolina primary in which black voters are viewed as crucial to his presidential aspirations. Once the front-runner in a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, Biden needs a resounding victory Saturday after an unexpectedly weak showing in early voting states.
Biden’s pitch to voters includes a plan to bolster gun laws, including an assault rifle ban. Yet his plans make no mention of cops in schools, though he’s been a champion of their presence since long before the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’m hard-pressed to find someone who has embraced law enforcement for as long as he has,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. After Sandy Hook, Wexler and other law enforcement leaders met with Biden at the White House to discuss ways to prevent gun violence. “He likes cops and firefighters, so when he came into that meeting after Sandy Hook, it was like he knew most of the people in the room. He didn’t need to be introduced.”
While mass school shootings have led to a surge in campus police over the past few decades, evidence that such practices curb campus violence remains startlingly thin. Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests their rapidly growing numbers have unintended consequences.
Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, blamed Biden’s efforts in the early 1990s for getting “the ball rolling” on school “militarization” and called on him to offer an explanation as he seeks the White House.
“All of these years later, now we know that in communities of color those cops are not there to protect and serve, but they are there for law and order purposes,” said Browne Dianis, whose Washington-based nonprofit focuses on racial justice issues. “White kids get protect and serve. Black and brown kids get law and order.”
By the time then-President Barack Obama tapped Biden to lead his post-Sandy Hook gun safety task force, the vice president’s reputation in law enforcement was well established. As a senator from Delaware, Biden steered significant criminal justice legislation, with support for school police going back decades.
In 1990, Biden became the key author of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which outlawed firearm possession on campuses. Four years later, he championed the most expansive law enforcement legislation in U.S. history. That law, signed by then-President Bill Clinton and generally known as the 1994 crime bill, included the Violence Against Women Act, funds for firearm background checks and a now-expired assault-rifle ban.
It also created the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services — known simply as the COPS Office — to distribute billions of dollars in federal money to hire thousands of police officers, including in schools. A second Clinton initiative, created in response to the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, provided funds for thousands of additional school-based officers. Since its inception, the COPS Office has spent about $1 billion on campus safety efforts, primarily on school resource officers.
The initiatives came after decades in which very few campuses had any police presence. In the 1970s, just 1 percent of schools were staffed by police. By the 2015-16 school year, 43 percent of public K-12 schools — and 71 percent of high schools — had armed law enforcement officers on campus, according to federal data.
When federal grants lapsed under the George W. Bush administration, Biden offered a stern warning. In a 2006 press release, he argued in the face of scant evidence that the program had been successful in preventing school violence. “It is incumbent on the federal government to support programs that work — and this one does when funded — especially when the fate of America’s young people is on the line,” he said.
But those federal grants came with unintended consequences, according to a recent study published by the University of Texas at Austin. Federal funds to hire school resource officers in Texas school districts were associated with a 6 percent increase in disciplinary rates among middle school students, a change driven by low-level violations, with the largest increases among black children, according to the report. Meanwhile, the grants were associated with a 2.5 percent drop in high school graduation rates and a 4 percent decline in college enrollment rates.
Though overall federal aid for school police trails local spending, investment from Washington “sends a message that this is the approach that local governments should be taking,” said Sarah Hinger, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. School shootings are statistically rare, and federal data indicate that campuses have become safer in recent years, but the anxiety they cause frequently fuels public policy.
Parents want to know “that there’s something being done in a quick and immediate way,” Hinger said, and investment in law enforcement “seems like an easy and ready place to say, ‘We’re doing something.’”
Since the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the COPS Office has spent more than $50 million on school safety initiatives, most of it on security technology like surveillance cameras and panic alarms.
The task force
In the wake of Sandy Hook, Biden turned once again to the federal COPS Office as part of a broad response to preventing further carnage.
As chairman of a White House task force on gun violence, Biden held hours of meetings with leaders from hundreds of organizations, from the American Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association. He also sought advice from Mike Bloomberg, Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination, who has faced his own criticism for aggressive law enforcement policies as mayor of New York City.
In a “very emotional, intense conversation” at the White House, Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum said Biden “recognized how law enforcement could be an ally.”
In the end, Biden’s work informed Obama’s wide-reaching response to Sandy Hook, which included four legislative proposals and 23 executive actions, including an expansive overhaul to federal gun laws.
Barbara Boxer, then a Democratic senator from California, took credit for the proposal to expand the ranks of school police, telling the Washington Post at the time that Biden was “very, very interested” in the idea.
Boxer declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said the former senator believes the long-term answer to gun violence is “to pass sensible gun laws.” Until then, she said, Boxer believes it’s “important to make sure our school campuses are safer.”
On the right, the National Rifle Association criticized the administration for rejecting a proposal to station armed guards at every school, calling Obama an “elitist hypocrite” because his daughters had Secret Service protection at school.
But the administration also faced criticism from civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which issued a report arguing that proposals to hire more school police simply “satisfy our desire to appear secure” by relying on the theory that “the only way to keep us safe from guns is to have more guns.”
In a report post-Sandy Hook, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service offered a sober analysis of the state of play. Though children were more likely to face arrest for minor offenses in schools with police, it found evidence of the effectiveness of school resource officers underwhelming. Crucially, it observed that existing research on campus officers “does not address whether their presence in schools has deterred mass shootings.”
Nearly three years after Sandy Hook, a 2015 altercation between a South Carolina officer and a high school student led many to question the approach Biden championed.
A school resource officer employed by the county sheriff’s office was called to a high school classroom in Columbia, South Carolina, when a black student refused to put away her cellphone, resulting in a scuffle. The officer was filmed flipping the girl onto the floor and flinging her across the classroom.
In response, the sheriff said the officer’s actions made him want to “throw up.” The officer was fired from his job but did not face criminal charges. A Justice Department inquiry was settled after local officials agreed to provide training to officers on how to de-escalate tense situations and avoid racial bias.
Thomas Dixon, a South Carolina pastor who ran an unsuccessful Democratic bid for U.S. Senate in 2016, said the graphic video “forced an awareness that had been previously overlooked.”
“That was just indicative of a long-standing, ongoing problem that we’ve had with school officers,” said Dixon, who is also a member of the board of directors of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “There’s been a misuse of authority within the school system for a long time.”
The incident prompted a lawsuit from the ACLU, leading to the repeal of the state’s “disturbing schools” law, which allowed police to arrest students for issues like talking back to a teacher or being loud in class. Hinger said the law was “overly broad” and mischaracterized “typical childhood behavior as criminal,” with disproportionate effects on students of color and those with disabilities.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said the incident was “a bad day for folks that work in our field.”
“It’s not the first bad day that we’ve had and it won’t be the last,” he said. While his nonprofit provides training for school resource officers, most states and the federal government don’t require instruction on issues like how to interact with children.
The incident prompted a national dialogue on school police, with some advocates arguing that school police should be removed from classrooms altogether. Among them was Brown Dianis of the Advancement Project, who said police violence against students of color “was not a concern” for Biden.
“Black kids in particular receive the same treatment by cops in schools that they do on the streets,” she added. “We tie that right back to the responses to the crime bill, to the gun-free schools act, and that’s where it all got its start.”
Recently, criticism of campus police has been overshadowed by the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, said Anthony Petrosino, director of the WestEd Justice and Prevention Research Center.
The Parkland shooting prompted Florida lawmakers to require armed guards on every school campus. In South Carolina, the state responded to Parkland by spending $12 million to hire more than 200 additional school resource officers.
“The police are more entrenched than ever, and I suspect it is going to keep going in that direction,” Petrosino said. Meanwhile, “the research is not showing a safety effect but it is indicating some harmful effects.”
In South Carolina, state police arrested a school resource officer in September on assault and misconduct charges for alleged “excessive force” on a student. That officer, officials alleged, slammed a middle school student’s head into his patrol car and lied about it on an incident report.
The campaign trail
Despite decades of support for school resource officers over the years, Biden does not mention the issue in his presidential platform. In his education plan, Biden argues against arming teachers, promising instead to enact “rational gun laws” to make schools safer.
But Dixon, the South Carolina pastor, said Biden should have “talked to enough people” after Sandy Hook to know that a ramped-up campus police presence “is not going to stop mass shootings” and to recognize their harmful effects on students of color.
Biden’s silence on school-based police is shared by most of the Democratic field. Only Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, offers a plan on campus officers. In that document, Warren argues that “the militarization of our schools does not improve school safety” and that if officers “have to be in schools,” then “they should receive training on discrimination, youth development and de-escalation techniques.”
Citing the ACLU, Warren’s platform notes that 14 million students attend schools with police officers but lack a counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project said Warren’s campaign reached out to her organization for advice on the topic, but none of the others did.
Biden, she said, should have to answer tough questions about his long embrace of school police before the Democratic primary in South Carolina.
“South Carolina, being the site of one of the most notorious school police assaults, should be a place for that conversation,” Browne Dianis said.
This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.