Police, Schools, and the Law: A Policy Examination

By Shira Small

Photo by Erik Mclean

Complex policy implementation in the United States makes it difficult to isolate a single law underpinning inequality in our school systems. Intersecting federal, state, and district policies mean that no two schools experience the same hardship — and no one bill can be signed to magically ameliorate the lack of support or resources a given school encounters. In order to improve school outcomes, it is important to understand and decode the complex policy network that translates law to in-school practices. How can policy be amended to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline? Why does the number of law enforcement officers on staff outnumber the number of counselors in some schools? How does federal policy inadvertently impact district decision-making? In order to begin addressing these questions, let’s take a look at the history of policy surrounding policing in schools, and how that should inform education policy recommendations.

Gun violence in American schools surged in the 1990s, imploring policymakers to increase funding for law enforcement to staff and protect public schools. Senators responded to the rise in school shootings by amending the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, among other legislation, to fund police presence in schools through programs like the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The program “awards grants to hire community policing professionals, develop and test innovative policing strategies, and provide training and technical assistance to community members, local government leaders, and all levels of law enforcement.” The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act has since allocated over $14 billion dollars to school policing. Also passed in 1994, the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act (SDFSCA) helped fund new law enforcement officers in American schools, authorizing State Formula Grants that local educational agencies could use to fund school security personnel. 46% percent of American public schools employed at least one SRO as of 2018 and an additional 11% employ a sworn law enforcement officer, a dramatic increase from the 1% of schools employing police officers in 1975. According to the Congressional Research Service’s report on the COPS program, “Congress has continued to appropriate funding for the COPS program even though authorized appropriations for the program expired in FY2009.” Although federal legislation in the 1990s dramatically increased police presence and funding in schools, SRO hiring is largely in the hands of local and state bureaucracies.

School districts are responsible for SRO or School Based Law Enforcement (SBLE) officer hiring. Only 12 states and D.C. have codified state laws relating to School Resource and Safety Officers, most of which help define the roles of the resource officers rather than mandating their presence in schools. The number of SROs or SBLE officers a given school hires is therefore almost entirely up to the discretion of a school district. These decisions, however, do not exist in a vacuum. An under-resourced school district’s decision to hire additional security officers will be largely influenced by the level of federal funding that exists if it cannot afford to hire additional staff independently, meaning a poorly funded school may be able to afford an SRO but not a school counselor. Federal legislation around school funding, therefore, influences the budget and priorities of a school tremendously, even if local policymakers choose how to divide that funding. School superintendents, school boards, and state legislatures work in tandem to determine how many law enforcement officers are necessary to a school community, creating a decentralized but school-specific approach to policing in the school system. Police departments also play a role in the deployment of SROs, like in D.C. where the city code requires the Metropolitan Police Department to outline a school safety program before the beginning of each school year. To institutionalize appropriate student-to-counselor ratios and limit the presence of police in schools, federal funding, and local policymaking must be reexamined together to support all American students and combat the school-to-prison pipeline.

Aside from policies defining and funding SROs and SBLE officers, zero-tolerance policies and other harsh disciplinary laws contribute to an overrepresentation of police in the American school system. A study from the National Center for Education Statistics on crime and safety in public schools conducted interviews with school administrators to uncover what factors most significantly limited their ability to prevent crime in school. Inadequate funding, a lack of alternative placements or programs for ‘disruptive’ students, and “federal, state, or district policies on disciplining special education students” were the three most commonly reported factors. The administrators do not note increased law enforcement as a valuable tool in reducing student crime rates. Non-disciplinary approaches to student misconduct are therefore crucial in developing supportive strategies to help struggling students. Although SROs are trained as mentors and support systems for the students, they do not have the social-emotional support training to carry out the alternative placements and programs that school administrators see as being most effective to reduce student misbehavior. Conversations about student misconduct must also take into account the racial bias relevant in the American school system, wherein black students are disproportionately more likely to be arrested in school than their white classmates. Overly disciplinary policies combined with discretionary rule implementation hurts black and brown students in the school system according to Epstein et. al. in their research about the adultification of black female students in public schools. Policy recommendations to improve equity in the school system must therefore incorporate amendments to local and federal policy around school discipline practices as well.