But these questions are not limited to a single school, school district, or state. With almost 20,000 officers working in schools across the United States, parents, school officials, and officers across the country should be asking what role, if any, officers should play in schools.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education offer a compelling answer in their Guiding Principles for improving school discipline. School resource officers should be “focused on protecting the physical safety of the school [and] preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students.” Educators, not officers, should handle routine school discipline. When an officer is involved in everyday discipline, from enforcing school rules and teacher directives to responding to adolescent defiance or disobedience, the result is “inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement.”
From the events at Spring Valley High School to the Kentucky officer who handcuffed an 8-year-old to an officer who threw repeated punches at a student, a string of recent incidents have illustrated how such referrals can be badly mishandled. These are extreme examples, perhaps, but they are not isolated events. The Department of Justice’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department criticized the tendency of officers interacting with students to “treat routine discipline issues as criminal matters,” and other reports have made similar observations in other jurisdictions. Disciplinary issues should be addressed with positive behavior support, counseling, or formal discipline such as detention. Unfortunately, schools around the country are inappropriately calling upon police to treat behavior problems as crimes.
Such escalation is wrong, and not just as a matter of principle. The criminalization of school discipline has dramatic effects that hurt children, schools, and the country as a whole. Students who are arrested or criminally charged are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to commit future crimes, contributing to the “school-to-prison” pipeline. Research has associated an increased use of strict punishment with more school disciplinary issues and lower academic achievement, even when controlling for demographic factors. Arresting students for disciplinary infractions may solve a problem in the short-term, at least in some cases, but it is likely to cause more problems in the long-term.
Worse, the criminalization of strict school discipline all too often falls along racial lines. Minority students, and especially black students, are far more likely to be “referred” to law enforcement than their white classmates. According to the education law expert Derek Black, author of the forthcoming Ending Zero Tolerance: Students’ Right to Rational Discipline, “African-American students’ risk of being referred to law enforcement is often higher than white students’ risk of being suspended.”