School Safety: Issues and Complications in Recent Headlines

Last Updated: October 29, 2014

This article appeared in the October 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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Mounting concerns about school safety have prompted a variety of initiatives in recent years aimed at keeping students safe in schools. But some of these strategies are facing significant pushback, especially when it comes to school policing.

Police presence in schools has escalated in recent years, initially in response to violent school incidents. The thinking goes that having officers on duty in school might prevent some students from acting in a violent fashion, can facilitate quick response to an incident should one occur, and may help build rapport between students and law enforcement. Some districts even have their own police departments.

Research is mixed on whether police presence reduces violence. Evidence is not so mixed when it comes to the impact of school police officers on student disciplinary action. But the relationship is an inverse one.

A rise in school-based policing has been accompanied by a steep rise in school-based arrests of students, mostly for non-violent and non-criminal minor misbehavior. Often for “soft” misbehaviors that have no specific associated action—things like disrespect and disrupting school—and for trivial actions, sometimes beyond the student’s control, things like tardiness and dress code violations.

Low-income students, students with disabilities, and students of color—especially black males—are much more likely to be arrested at school than other students. Yet their alleged offenses are no more serious than those against students who receive far less severe punishments.

These facts have prompted a number of groups to call for an end to such practices and scaling back of police presence in schools.

Those calls were accelerated late last month when a coalition of advocacy groups wrote a letter calling for an end to the practice of transferring Department of Defense surplus equipment to school police departments.

The issue rose to national attention in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this year when police met civilian protestors with military weaponry.

According to an article in Education Week, 22 districts in eight states—California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Utah—have received military weaponry that includes “M-14 and M-16 rifles, extended magazines, automatic pistols, armored plating, tactical vests, SWAT gear, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, MRAP vehicles, and grenade launchers.”

The issue of police in schools took a different turn in Tucson, Arizona, where a plan to re-institute a School Resource Officer program was put on hold late last month. The issue is whether officers could be restricted from making inquiries regarding students’ immigration status.

According to a September 24 report in the Arizona Daily Star, the City Council and school district had stipulated that officers would not be allowed to ask students questions related to their immigration status. But the city’s police chief, Roberto Villasenor, told the Council in September that such an order would require officers to violate state immigration law.

The rules governing school resource officers will have to be clarified and re-written before the district can move forward with the program.

Read more:

Advocacy letter calling for an end to military weaponry in school district police departments:

Military equipment in schools:

Police in Tucson schools:

Read more from the October 2014
Rural Policy Matters.