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As a 10th grader at Sacramento’s Luther Burbank High School, Stephanie Lopez remembers when she saw a school resource officer treat her brother like a criminal.
Her brother had bumped into the officer and apologized, Lopez said. But the officer proceeded to question him and asked him for his ID.
“It was all new to me,” said Lopez, now 17 and a senior, of the aggressive approach the officer used with her brother. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a police officer. When I got to high school, I finally saw what it’s like for us, for people of color. It really angered me, because I didn’t notice it in my childhood.”
As a result, more students such as Stephanie are organizing to confront school boards in California about feeling threatened, uneasy and unsafe with the police presence on their campuses. The goal is to pressure school boards to drop contracts to staff school resource officers, or SROs, and use the funds to pay for more mental health experts, counselors, nurses, librarians and other staff they say are lacking on their campuses.
The campaigns have not completely pushed out SROs, but some districts have drafted memorandums of understanding to address how school resource officers are used and the kind of services they can and cannot provide.
“A lot of our work is getting folks organized … we’re the train moving in the opposite direction,” said Carrie Lorraine Ayala, the regional connector for Central Valley Movement Building. Her organization is part of a coalition under the umbrella of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of organizations that are working to prevent student push-out.
Ayala said parents and the community believe hiring more officers will make a school safer. Her group and other juvenile justice organizations say money is best spent on restorative justice.
“Parents care about the well-being of their children,” Ayala said. “But police on campus do not make it a safer environment for students. It makes those students more likely to be arrested on campus.”
The use of law enforcement to handle discipline in classrooms and hallways is sometimes referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.” The term is used in a 2016 report by the ACLU, which found that in schools across California, there were 22,746 students referred to the police and 9,540 students arrested in 2013-14 school year.
Researchers found that black students are three times as likely as white students to be arrested on school grounds. They also found a link with poverty – “in schools where more than 80 percent of students are low-income is seven times the average arrest rate in schools where fewer than 20 percent of students are low-income,” according to the report.
But in their own recent report on protecting students and school safety, the National Association of School Resource Officers or NASRO, said the term “school to prison pipeline” is misused.
“This criticism of school resource officers reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of comprehensive interagency reform,” according to the report. “The ‘school-to-jail pipeline’ rhetoric is also misled as to juvenile law and victims’ rights.”
Mo Canady, executive director for NASRO, said it was unfortunate that some feel uncomfortable around school police officers.
“In NASRO’s view, the primary goal of any school resource officer is to bridge any gaps that exist between youth and law enforcement,” he said. “This requires carefully selecting only the best police officers for the job and providing specialized training in the many ways school police work must differ from street policing.”
The call for cops on campus often surfaces after a mass shooting, such as the one that occurred in Santa Clarita, California, on Nov. 14, when three students died, including the shooter who died from a self-inflicted wound, and several others were injured.
But opponents of the SRO approach to school safety say there is no proof that school resource officers can stop such heinous acts.
“Unfortunately, too often after these kinds of tragedies, the response is to prioritize and further embed invasive security measures and increased law enforcement presence, surveillance and activity in schools throughout the country,” according to a joint statement from the Alliance for Educational Justice and the Dignity in Schools Campaign. The statement was released after 17 people were killed and 17 others were injured in a 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“The impulse to police school communities will not prevent further tragedies and will be counterproductive towards building safe, nurturing, and supportive learning environments,” the statement continued.
Los Angeles County is home to the largest school police force in the nation. Using data provided by the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD), researchers with Million Dollar Hoods, a project through the UCLA Bunche Center, found that the LASPD made 3,389 arrests while issuing 2,724 citations and 1,282 diversions between 2014 and 2017.
Black youth comprised 25 percent of the total arrests, citations and diversions despite representing less than 9 percent of the student population, according to the report.
“Boys of color made up 76 percent of all LASPD involvement,” it stated in the report. “Elementary and middle-school age youth accounted for one in four of the total arrests.”
While the figures remain concerning to youth activists, the Million Dollar Hoods project did find that arrests appeared to decrease for all groups from 2014 to 2017.
Asked to comment on the issue of school resource officers and the youth campaigns to eliminate them from campuses, neither the Los Angeles Unified School District nor the Los Angeles School Police Department responded to requests made by The Chronicle of Social Change.
Several groups in Sacramento worked to eliminate SROs from school campuses and came close.
After the Sacramento City Unified School District Board voted in February to approve a $1.4 million contract for police officers in the district, groups such as Brown Issues and Sacramento Act were able to convince the board to cut the number of school resource officers on district campuses from eight to three while renewing its contract with the Sacramento Police Department in August.
Members of Sacramento Act had hoped the contract would be eliminated when the Board returned for a vote last month. But the board agreed in a 5 to 2 vote to spending $563,097 for three off-site officers who will oversee the schools. The contract also called for the police department to provide consistent data of arrests and other on campus activities.
“It wasn’t surprising,” said Alma Lopez, an organizer with Brown Issues. “We knew they wanted to propose a modified contract, but it’s disappointing.”
Organizations such as the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, which works to reduce incarceration through policy, support the student groups trying to bring change to campuses.
“The students are following the research and experience on this,” said Marc Schindler, executive director for the organization. “I think just generally, it’s more important to listen to our young people. More often than not, not always, but they know what they need and have a sense of what will work for them and their peers.”
Schindler said despite their best efforts, members of law enforcement are not trained to be social workers or counselors. But school districts that continue to keep SROs should consider drafting a memorandum of understanding to make it clear that law enforcement should not be involved in school disciplinary actions.
“Let’s really listen to our young people,” Schindler said. “Truly listen and engage in dialogue and conversation.”
Stephanie, the Luther Burbank High School student who is a member of Brown Issues, said she and other youth will continue to speak out, and encourage the school board to consider hiring more hall monitors, which have been more effective in stopping fights, for example, and engaging with students in a more positive way, she added.
“I’m pretty disappointed, because (the school board members) say they are listening to us, but I think they are just hearing us,” she said.