Above Photo: A Douglas County Sheriff sits in on part of an art class at Buffalo Ridge Elementary School, part of a new cooperative effort between law enforcement and schools for more routine police presence at local elementary schools, in Castle Pines, Colo. (AP/Brennan Linsley)
The over-reliance on law enforcement in the nation’s schools is reflective of a national attitude — one that is in dire need of adjusting.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – Last month a video emerged of a La Mesa police officer violently slamming a 17-year-old student onto the ground at a San Diego charter school. The juvenile, who had complained of feeling ill, was accused by a teacher of being on drugs. When the student consented to a search of her belongings, no drugs were found but some pepper spray was.
Since the spray was classified as a weapon, the student was suspended and asked to leave the campus. The student felt the suspension was unfair and refused to leave; that’s when police were called.
A statement by La Mesa Police Chief Walt Vasquez says the girl, who had been handcuffed, tried to escape from the officer, who used force to subdue her:
As they were walking, the student became non-compliant on two separate occasions and made an attempt to free herself by pulling away from the officer. To prevent the student from escaping, the officer forced the student to the ground.”
In a video of the incident, the officer is seen throwing the girl over his shoulder onto the concrete sidewalk. He then used the weight of his body to pin her to the ground. The officer forced her to the ground twice, witnesses said.
You can view the video for yourself below.
While attempting to escape from police custody is a serious offense – if that is in fact what happened in this instance – the question that seems to be missing from this discussion is why law enforcement was called to a school to handle what should have been a non-criminal offense.
The unidentified La Mesa police officer who did the body slamming is euphemistically called a “school resource officer.” When one hears the title “school resource officer,” one probably thinks of a “counselor.” But the body-slamming La Mesa officer is not a counselor. He’s not a “school resource officer.” He’s a cop. And, over the past five years, cops like this one were responsible for 28 violent incidents injuring children and youth on America’s secondary-school campuses. One student was killed. As Mother Jones magazine reported back in 2015, one student suffered a brain injury from a chokehold; another suffered a Taser-induced brain injury; one was beaten with a baton, and a fourth student was shot to death.
The most well-known instance of “school resource officer” violence is that of a South Carolina police officer yanking a student out of her desk and throwing her across the room. That incident, which also happened in 2015, started when the youth was asked to leave the classroom and, similar to the La Mesa student, refused to do so.
The cops who are called “school resource officers” do not provide resources to students. They arrest them, place them in handcuffs, and transport them to jail. These officers place students, children and youth, into unnecessary contact with the judicial system. That’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Dignity in Schools Coalition, a New York-based organization, “challenges the systemic problem of ‘pushout’ in our nation’s schools and works to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.” The group defines “pushout” as “the numerous and systemic factors that prevent or discourage young people from remaining on track to complete their education and has severe and lasting consequences for students, parents, schools, and communities.”
Among those factors are “over-reliance on law enforcement tactics and ceding of disciplinary authority to law enforcement personnel.” As a necessary corrective to the presence of law enforcement in schools, the Coalition has created policy recommendations that encourage “Counselors Not Cops.”
Dignity in Schools states:
The presence of police in schools has escalated dramatically in the last several decades, and the figures on arrests and referrals to law enforcement show disproportionate targeting of Black and Latino students … While the complete emotional, social and financial impact of daily police presence in schools is not fully understood, it is clear that students and their families are criminalized, and that school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement go up when police have a regular presence in schools.”
According to Vox, the more nonwhite students a school has, the more likely it is to have a police presence; only the poorest students have more police in schools, and the biggest impact of police in schools is more “disorderly conduct” charges.
It’s important to understand that merely advocating for less violent treatment of youth by police is not the answer. It is the presence of cops on campus, in proximity to youth, that is the problem. The primary issue is, of course, a criminalizing response to a school disciplinary issue. A secondary issue, however, is that many of the same scenarios that occur outside of campuses with adults are often mirrored on campuses.
Oakland, California is a good example of that. The Oakland Police Department was rocked by a rape scandal in 2015-16 that saw numerous officers from Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond and Livermore implicated in the sexual trafficking of a 16-year-old girl. At least two of the officers involved had worked as “school resource officers” in Richmond — and one of those two had previously detained the minor for cutting class.
The over-reliance on law enforcement in the nation’s schools is reflective of a national attitude — one that is in dire need of adjusting. School discipline is necessary for an orderly environment in which children and youth will be able to learn and grow to their fullest potential. Challenges to that orderly environment, however, should not be met with punitive, criminal remedies. Such a response sends the message that children/youth are consciously acting in an incorrigible manner and there is no room for correcting their behavior. And a response such as that is antithetical to the whole notion of what it means to be a child/youth in the first place.