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To Cut Police Budgets, Start in Public Schools

The presence of police in schools is emblematic of America’s carceral approach to governing.

Protesters demanding removing police officers from schools on the steps of the Department of Education on June 25.Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

For advocates who have long sought ambitious structural changes to policing, the aphorism that “there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen” rings especially true in this moment. 

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May and the videos of police violence toward protesters that followed have sparked a new conversation about how to cut policing budgets and invest directly in social services. The presence of police in public schools should be one of the first things to go.

On June 30, advocates to end school policing scored an initial blow against the largest independent school police force in the country when the Los Angeles Board of Education voted 4-3 to cut the L.A. School Police Department budget by $25 million, or 35 percent. LASPD oversees about 600,000 students and made over 3,000 arrests between 2014 and 2017; the board plans to redirect funds to serve Black students by hiring social workers, counselors, and safety aides while they form a task force to assess alternative approaches to school safety.         

There are many good reasons national movements to defund the police have made and should continue to make school resource officers, or SROs, a primary goal of any budget-cutting strategy or proposal.

The presence of police in schools is emblematic of the worst excesses of our failed experiment in modern policing and the expansion of America’s carceral approach to governing. Although law enforcement has been formally designated to serve in schools since the late 1950s, only about 20 percent of schools reported police presence in the mid-1990s before the explosion of SROs. In response to increasing reports of school violence, Congress passed the Gun Free Act of 1994 and established a “zero tolerance” law, which required schools to expel any student who brought a weapon to school and to refer these incidents to the authorities. After the Columbine shooting in 1999, the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) created the Cops in Schools program, which granted over $750 million in funds to local jurisdictions to hire thousands of SROs between 1999 and 2005. An Urban Institute analysis found that 68 percent of high school students attended a school with a police officer in the 2013-14 school year, with significant racial disparities in police presence.  

The proliferation of federal and local funding for SROs and the outsourcing of educational discipline to police officers is an entirely recent invention. In theory, SROs were hired to manage serious safety challenges that school security guards could not. They were also meant to be part of a broader community policing strategy to form positive relationships between citizens and police starting at a young age. Opponents of school policing rightly argue that the presence of law enforcement in educational settings is a perfect example of how the footprint of policing has expanded over time and how we are increasingly turning to the punishment bureaucracy to manage social problems.

This approach has also failed. In schools with police, Black students are disproportionately likely to be suspended, expelled, and arrested, especially for low-level offenses like alcohol possession or vandalism. Those interruptions in schooling lead to lower graduation rates for Black students compared to their non-Black peers. SROs have also engaged in physical abuse and misconduct toward students. Last year in Orlando, one officer arrested two 6-year-olds for misdemeanor battery after they threw tantrums. And a few years ago, officers in Pittsburgh handcuffed a 7-year-old Black student who was later diagnosed with ADHD.

In schools with police, Black students are disproportionately likely to be suspended, expelled, and arrested.

Meanwhile, the evidence base for whether SROs improve school safety is mixed, and the issue of whether they deter school shootings has never been rigorously studied. And violent victimization rates in schools are low; studies have found that the percentage of students who have experienced violent incidents in public schools is 1 percent or less. 

The resources devoted to police in schools also starkly contrasts with those given to mental health, counseling, and social service resources available to students. According to an ACLU report, 14 million students attend schools with police officers but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. We must redirect SRO budgets to youth development and to paying for mental health counselors and nurses who can help students in crisis. We must expand after-school programs and other educational resources for students instead of criminalizing misbehavior. When more serious issues arise, we must implement school-based restorative justice programs, which have shown promise in reducing violence and the need for formal discipline, while improving academic outcomes.

Communities are already pushing their school boards and city councils to cut funding or end contracts for school policing. Since June, four of the largest cities in the country have cut the ties between police and public schools. On June 2, the Minneapolis Public School Board voted unanimously to discontinue its contract with the city’s police department as protests roiled the city. Two days later, Portland, Oregon, did the same when the superintendent of Portland Public Schools announced it was ending its contract with the police and the city eliminated the youth services division of its police bureau. The Denver school board voted unanimously to phase out school resource officers by June 2021, stating that the resources could be used for “social workers, psychologists, restorative justice practitioners, or other mental or behavioral health professionals.” Other cities like Milwaukee, Oakland, California, and Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as smaller jurisdictions including West Contra Costa, California, and Edmonds, Washington, have also removed police from their schools.

A clear model can be created for how to divest from SROs and invest directly in delivering educational services for the same communities that have been most negatively affected by policing. We do not have a rigorous evidence base for some of these interventions, which is precisely why we need to experiment as we expand our idea of what kind of policymaking is possible. As Yale law and sociology associate professor Monica Bell wrote, “One shortcoming of social science-primacy in policymaking is that it is inherently backward-looking, a way to assess the worlds we have already inhabited.” 

As the coronavirus pandemic steers municipalities toward austerity, now is the time to shift budget priorities in the direction of racial justice and improved social welfare. This process should be intentional about divesting from carceral approaches to fund nonpunitive responses. Cutting police budgets for SROs to affirm that law enforcement has no place in public education is one of the best places to start. 

Aaron Stagoff-Belfort works for the Policing Program at the Vera Institute of Justice. He is based in Brooklyn.