Do We Need Police in Schools? Creating Safety for All Students

By , Editorial Content Strategist

Despite armed police officers being present in nearly half of US K-12 public schools, there is little evidence that police make schools safer. Police do not prevent school shootings or serious crime, and often pose a serious threat to student well-being. CPE’s most recent webinar, Do We Need Police in Schools? Creating Safety for All Students, drew on our recently published Redesigning Public Safety: K-12 Schools white paper and other relevant findings to demonstrate how replacing police in schools with alternative safety strategies can create safer, more equitable, more academically enriching environments for our children.

Simply stated, research shows that police in schools exacerbate inequity, and the extent of the disproportionate and heavy-handed policing of disabled, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ students relative to White students cannot be explained by behavioral differences. School resource officer programs are rooted in the history of segregation and have become increasingly commonplace since their inception in the 1950s and 1960s, despite the fact they have been shown to have widespread negative consequences. Interacting with police worsens students’ outcomes, reducing their chances of graduating while increasing their chances of future interaction with the carceral system.

In response to this harrowing environment, school administrators and communities are embracing alternative public health approaches that better address student misconduct, by getting to its root causes. By turning to the promise of restorative justice approaches—that is, practices that supplant punitive, punishment-oriented approaches with case-specific interventions focused on rehabilitation, conflict resolution, and peer reconciliation—school districts across the country are finding new outlets for securing student safety.

One speaker in our webinar was Dr. Jeana Bracey—Associate Vice President of School & Community Initiatives at the Child Health and Development Institute—who spoke directly to her work in Connecticut, where the School-Based Diversion Initiative was launched to shift from punishment to more supportive practices. Participating schools saw a 29% reduction in court referrals and a 55% increase in referrals to mobile crisis services between 2010 and 2019. Across the country, school districts are also putting the promise of restorative justice to the test: Baltimore County Public Schools implemented a program to help school staff appropriately respond to and prevent emotional and behavioral crises, which resulted in a 56% decline in suspensions. Steps like these save lives and money. “The investment is a lot less costly,” Dr. Bracey said in the webinar. Kristen Henning—Director of Juvenile Justice Clinic & Initiative at Georgetown Law—concurred: “It’s not even the best or most appropriate use of resources... That’s one of the other things that the research has shown. We as a country have bought into the narrative that to keep our students safe [requires]... law enforcement... Even the presence of police in schools does not achieve that goal.”

Other school districts have gone even further, removing police entirely. Desiree Mims, another featured speaker, is a longtime organizer with the Black Organizing Project, a group based in Oakland, CA. Following nine years of advocacy, they got the Oakland City Council to vote unanimously in June 2020 to eliminate the Oakland School Police Department. By October 2022, in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District, they implemented new campus safety and retraining procedures for newly hired “culture and climate keepers.” The result was that, from August 2021 to April 2022, Oakland schools made 93% fewer calls to police than they did in the same time frame from 2019-2020. “The same police department we eliminated claimed the life of Raheim Brown,” said Ms. Mims. “We’re not talking about harm happening in other states; we're talking about harm happening in the community, on a school campus... To only throw police at [behavioral issues] is a disservice and a real problem... there are so many examples of things that could be funded [in lieu of police].”

Here are some other examples of communities removing police from schools: 

  • Initial results from Minneapolis, where the school board ended its contract with the city’s police department and hired unsworn public safety specialists, show a significant drop in school suspensions.
  • In Arlington, VA, the school board and the police department reached a memorandum of understanding in March 2022, stipulating that the department will not be present on campuses unless requested and that schools will handle all code of conduct violations without involving the police unless required by statute. The community reports that the new system is working well.
  • Student-led organizers in Des Moines brought attention to racial disparities in student arrests, leading the Des Moines School District to make several changes to their school-based policing program, including the eventual reallocation of $750,000 to hiring restorative justice practice staff. School-based arrests decreased 82% district-wide in the first year of the program.

You can learn more about how to make schools safer through our recorded webinar and the companion white paper, but if you’re interested in taking action in your community, check out this community resource guide on what you can do now to advocate for safer schools. Most local school policies are set by locally elected officials. To better serve our children, we need to bring this knowledge to the voting booth, supporting candidates who are committed to removing police from schools and redesigning public safety systems across the board. Change begins with our voices, with your voice; with science on our side, our voices can cut through the noise, enacting meaningful change.

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