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Why School Policing Reform Matters

It seems like every few months the news reports on a video of another negative interaction between police officers and students at a school. These videos (such as recent ones from Florida, Western Pennsylvania and Dallas) are jarring. They show young children being treated as criminals, or worse, being physically harmed by the very adults who are supposed to protect them.

I remember the first time a parent showed me a video of her child being handcuffed at school. Jackson* was 13, but looked young for his age. One day, he went to his former elementary school to pick up his sister. In the video of the incident, we see Jackson waiting outside as a patrol car drives up. The officer walks up to Jackson and they exchange words. Jackson reports he was asking the officer if he could go inside to use the bathroom. When he was told no, Jackson left to go to a portable toilet on the baseball field outside.

The video then cuts ahead to 5 minutes later. It shows the officer marching Jackson in handcuffs from the baseball field behind the school. His crime? “Trespassing” on school grounds by using the portable toilet. The officer marches Jackson down the hallway handcuffed past a group of elementary school students and some of his former teachers. No one blinks an eye.

When police are in schools daily, it increases the risk that officers will respond to adolescent behavior with the full force of criminal law. Arrests have terrible consequences for students. A first-time arrest doubles the odds that a student will drop out of high school, and a first-time court appearance quadruples the odds. One study found that only 26 percent of students who were arrested graduated from high school, as opposed to 64 percent of their peers. Students who have been arrested were half as likely as others to enroll in a four-year college.

Even when students are not arrested, police interactions can leave them feeling targeted and lead to alienation from their teachers and other school officials. That was Jackson’s experience. He was handcuffed and the officer wrote up a report. But Jackson wasn’t charged with a crime and he didn’t end up in the juvenile justice system. The experience left him feeling humiliated. “It’s like they’ve already pre-judged me as just another criminal.” Jackson was especially upset that his former teachers watched him being walked down the hallway in handcuffs, and none of them checked in with him or seemed troubled by the situation.

Research indicates that students in highly punitive schools – ones with high rates of suspension, expulsion, or student arrests – feel less connected with and trusting of adults and less engaged in those schools. This in turn can make our schools less safe and less successful.

Some schools are making substantial changes to their school policing programs with the goal of minimizing these negative effects. In Spokane, Washington, school leaders worked collaboratively with community members to develop new policies governing school policing. These policies restrict the incidents that officers will respond to. Low-level misdemeanor offenses will not result in student arrests or referrals to the criminal justice system. Officers won’t handcuff or physically restrain a student unless the student is under arrest or there’s a clear danger of physical harm. Specifically, the policy prohibits officers from using physical restraint or other force as a form of punishment, or as an initial response to disruption, non-compliance, or property destruction. And officers are required to take annual training in how to work with young people, including training in disability and implicit bias.

These changes have had a major impact in Spokane. School officials report that student arrest rates are down over 80% compared to the previous year, and public defenders report seeing fewer referrals from the school for low level crimes.

Spurred by stories like Jackson’s, the ACLU of Washington launched an investigation into school police practices in Washington state culminating in our report, “Students, Not Suspects: The Need to Reform School Policing in Washington State.” We found that 84 of Washington’s 100 largest school districts have police stationed in schools on a daily basis and that schools are largely paying the bill for police presence. Police arrested or referred students for prosecution more than 3400 times in 2014. Those students were disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities. Moreover, school policies in Washington generally do little to curtail the use of police as disciplinarians. In Washington, it is a crime to “disturb school.” Few schools have specific policies preventing officer involvement in routine school discipline incidents.

“Students, Not Suspects” recommends specific policy reforms to prevent the criminalization of children in schools. Our major recommendation is that local school districts reconsider the use of school police or, at a minimum, ensure that police are not involved in incidents that could be handled through the school’s disciplinary process. We recommend that the state legislature repeal Washington’s disturbing schools crime and ensure that school police are accountable to parents, students, and other members of the school community.

These changes can help ensure that our schools remain places of learning where kids feel safe and can thrive.

Vanessa Hernandez is Youth Policy Director at the ACLU of Washington. She is a former seventh grade history teacher and parent to two children in public school.

*We've changed the student's name to Jackson to protect his privacy.



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