By Sasha Fernandez
Jenny Cetlin was teaching at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. last fall, when one of her students began disrupting the class.
Cetlin said that because she had to manage 18 other students, she called the office for assistance. The school didn’t have a guidance counselor, so the administration instead sent up a school-based police officer.
While the officer was able to diffuse the situation, Cetlin said she felt conflicted as a white woman calling a police officer to her classroom.
“I didn’t feel like it made the situation any worse necessarily, but inherently, it feels like you’re calling a police officer instead of somebody who’s trained in behavior,” she said.
D.C. advocates are calling for the removal of police officers from schools, arguing that school-based law enforcement disproportionately target students of color and inhibit learning.
This movement is part of a national trend as school districts in Denver, Minneapolis and Portland cut security contracts with police departments this summer, because of studies linking police presence in schools with higher rates of discipline and juvenile justice referrals for students of color.
At the national level, Black children made up 15.4% of enrolled students in the 2015-2016 school year, yet they made up 36.1% of school-related arrests, according to the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection. In that same school year in Washington, D.C., Black students made up 70.6% of the enrolled population, but 94.6% of referrals to law enforcement and 93.3% of school-related arrests.
Octavia Wolf, a teacher at the West Education Campus in D.C., said her students of color have shared traumatic experiences of police arresting their parents or profiling them at local establishments. She said that these stories have informed her view of police in schools.
“I think it’s important for schools to understand the symbolism having a police officer presents, particularly with the full-on uniform and the weapons, that it can be extremely emotionally traumatizing for many students,” Wolf said.
Wolf said that she has had students exhibit disruptive behavior, and has utilized behavioral techniques to calm down her students.
“A lot of times the frustration might be something that is in your classroom, such as the content being really hard; it might be something outside of your classroom like situations at home,” she said. “Just giving them a place to feel safe and share that, honestly, I have never, ever, ever had to call the police officer or had the school have to call the police officer for any situation in the classroom.”
Understanding Police in Schools
The primary type of police officer in schools is a school resource officer (SRO). They are considered “a career law enforcement officer with sworn authority who is deployed by an employing police department or agency in a community-oriented policing assignment to work in collaboration with one or more schools,” according to the National Association of SROs.
At the national level, Congress began to invest in police when they passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, President Bill Clinton pledged $60 million in supplemental funds for the hiring of more than 450 police officers for K-12 schools, according to a 2018 American Progress report.
Since 1999, experts report that state and national officials have spent a combined total of nearly $2 billion in funding for school resource officers.
While SROs are equated with working to prevent school shootings, this is not their only duty. A 2013 Congressional Research Service Report noted that “SROs are sworn law enforcement officers who, among other things, patrol the school, investigate criminal complaints, and handle law violators.”
Karen Dolan, the director of the Criminalization of Race and Poverty program at the Institute for Policy Studies, said that it is the duty to uphold the law that complicates implementing SROs. If SROs are police officers and they are surrounded by students, the students then become the pool of people to police, according to Dolan.
“Law enforcement is to lock people up. That’s what happens when they’re in school,” Dolan said. “They just don’t belong there.”
In the 2018 Students Under Siege Report, Dolan’s research highlights that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school or if they are arrested they can become repeat offenders jeopardizing their future income by having a criminal record. In addition, the evidence demonstrates that the majority of student infractions are for minor offenses including truancy and disorderly conduct, rather than violent crimes.
Dolan said that the compounding effect is that policing is not equal and it disproportionately affects minority students, particularly students of color.
“When you look at the public school populations, [minorities] are the majority of the public school population,” Dolan said. “It’s endangering an entire generation.”
Krithika Santhanam, a Staff Attorney at the Advancement Project non-profit, said that the assertion that school police officers prevent school shootings inhibits their removal.
“Even if folks are starting to have a level of awareness and consciousness that there is a systemic issue with policing, I think the one area that people feel really strongly about is having police present in school,” she said.
Santhanam said that in response to this attachment, the Advancement Project has worked to “debunk” the myths surrounding police in schools by producing research reports and working with local advocacy groups.
While the government has continued to fund school police, since Columbine, there have been at least 230 school shootings in the United States, according to an NECN report.
In addition there have been instances where the school’s officer was unable to stop the shooting. Multiple interviewees for this story cited the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where the school resource officer escaped the building during the shooting and went to safety as students were trapped inside. He has since been charged with culpable negligence.
Mo Canady, executive director for the National Association for School Resource Officers (NASRO), said that schools began to hire SROs for the purpose of protecting against outside violence, but he said the program should be a mechanism for community-based policing. As a police officer and school resource officer for a combined total of 25 years, Canady said he saw the positive impact firsthand.
“There were communities like mine who really embraced the idea of community based policing in the school environment, so it wasn’t just to be a door guard, it wasn’t just to stand guard for an event that most likely wasn’t gonna happen,” he said.
In an August press release, NASRO, in coordination with multiple organizations, wrote that they acknowledged and opposed harm by “untrained or undertrained law enforcement in schools” to students.
They wrote: “However, it is critically important to recognize that carefully selected and specially trained SROs differ from other law enforcement officers and security personnel assigned to schools who have not received adequate preparation to work with children, adolescents, and in a school environment.”
Canady said that NASRO has worked to improve training. The organization provides a 40-hour training course which covers topics like informal counseling, sex trafficking, implicit bias, and adolescent brain development, according to Canady. However, he said that this course is just the jumping off point.
“From our standpoint, it really requires much more training than just that,” he said. “Our 40 hour class is kind of the beginning.”
The D.C. School and Police System
Within D.C., there are multiple types of police officers that interact with students in the school system.
Locally, SROs are Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) trained officials that can respond to emergencies and make arrests, and they work in clusters monitoring multiple schools, according to DC Public Schools. There are special police officers that work as guards in the school, and there are also Contract Security Officers managed by a private firm Security Assurance Management, Inc., but they are paid through the school system’s budget. For special police officers and contract security officers, some are allowed to restrain individuals for infractions on school property, but none are allowed to carry firearms. The officers each receive 40 hours of mandatory basic training; private contractors receive direction from their firm and other officers obtain it through MPD.
These contracted officers were the source of conflict this summer, as DCPS paid $23 million for a one-year contract in 2020 for 328 officers.
In response, Councilmember David Grosso created a resolution to move the contract so that it would be controlled by DCPS rather than by the police department. In July, the bill passed, despite Mayor Bowser’s disapproval.
Danielle Henry, a mother whose children attend DCPS schools, said that she hopes to see the funds utilized for supporting children’s needs rather than funding school police.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not all that excited about it,” she said. “I would be much more comfortable with more mental health support, more social workers, more of a focus on restorative justice in schools and socio-emotional learning.”
Besides the contract change, the local State Board of Education voted July 15 to establish “police-free” schools and invest in transformative justice curricula and in counselors and community violence interrupters. Only one member voted in opposition to the bill.
Jessica Sutter, Ward 6 Representative on the State Board of Education, shares the experience of her constituents.
SBOE Ward 6 Representative Jessica Sutter said she voted in favor of the bill because she was persuaded by student advocates from nonprofit groups like Pathways 2 Power and Black Swan Academy calling for police replacements.
“We also think that the presence of security in buildings, the presence of armed officers in buildings sends a message that young people are inherently dangerous,” she said.
Sutter said that for students who have experienced traumatic events, the presence of police officers compounds this experience and creates an obstacle to learning.
“So we ask people to come to school, and we want them to read right on grade level. We want them to get great grades…but we also are putting in place these systems, including SRO school security, that introduce trauma and sort of counteract everything we care about them doing,” she said.
Markus Batchelor, the Ward 8 Representative on SBOE, said that in the month and a half preceding the vote on the bill, he and his colleagues shared some of the personal relationships they had with their school resource officers. Batchelor said that he had a “really good relationship” with the officer stationed at his high school.
“I think we all challenged our assumption and said that the value out of those relationships was just a caring adult inside the building, not necessarily the uniform or the badge, or the gun they carried,” he said.
While the resolution created by SBOE is an advisory measure rather than binding, Batchelor said that the vote is a statement.
“For [the board] to say anything near unanimously, I think makes an impact,” Batchelor said.
Samantha Davis, the founder and executive director for the D.C. advocacy organization Black Swan Academy, has worked to remove police from schools under the 2019 Love Us, Don’t Harm Us campaign. Since the protests this summer, she said she has seen a “huge shift” in people advocating for a transition to police-free schools.
However, Davis said that she sees it as a major stepping stone for police-free life.
“I think the important part when we’re talking about policing in schools, from Black Swan Academy’s perspective is to recognize that we are operating in this work from an abolitionist framework, which means that we believe that our schools are microcosms of our larger community of our larger society,” she said. “Knowing that we can have police free schools lets us know that we can also have police free communities.”