Police in Schools

Kids Are Back in Schools. Cops Shouldn't Be.

Police are being asked to handle kids broken by failures of public schooling.


It's no secret that bad policy all too often breeds more bad policy. After two years of pandemic-related disruptions to public schooling and the lives of the students that attend them, kids returning to classrooms are acting out in ways that weren't (but should have been) anticipated. As a consequence, the push to remove police officers from schools, where their presence often escalates conflict, has stalled and even reversed. With politicians putting cops back in schools to address disturbing behavior caused by earlier political decisions, we may be in for a new round of problems measured in harmed children.

Police were an unusual presence in schools when many of today's adults were growing up. "In the mid-1970s, police officers were in only about 1 percent of US schools," Livia Gershon noted in June 2020 for JSTOR Daily, a scholarly news publication. "That changed since the late 1990s, as school shooting incidents brought a wave of concern about safety. Today, 60 percent of schools have a police presence."

As with so many visitations from the Good Idea Fairy, the placement of police officers in schools got a nudge from a federal program. This one "supports safe schools by providing grant funds, technical assistance, and resources to help deploy school resource officers (SROs)." The result was subsidized disciplinary enforcement handed off to armed police officers trained to deal with dangerous criminals, and now applying their skills to mischievous, hot-headed, and sometimes troubled kids.

"I've seen cases where students got into a fight and the principal responded by offering conflict resolution, only to learn that the SRO decided to charge the participants with a crime," former public school superintendent Joshua P. Starr wrote for The Phi Delta Kappan in 2018. "I also know police commanders who privately express frustration with their local school leaders, accusing them of abusing their authority, ignoring police protocols, and ordering officers to intimidate and crack down on students they want to push out of the school," he added.

The human cost of interactions can be considerable when disciplinary incidents are escalated to police matters. In November 2021, school resource officers at Little Elm High School in suburban Dallas were captured on video tasing and pepper-spraying protesting students. In 2019, Douglas County, Colorado, school resource officers arrested and handcuffed an autistic 11-year-old boy, and then confined him in a patrol car for two hours, after he scratched a classmate with a pencil (his parents had to post a $25,000 bond for his release). The Kenton County, Kentucky, Sheriff's Department paid out a six-figure settlement in 2018 after Deputy Kevin Sumner, working as a school resource officer, handcuffed an eight-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl.

"These are very young children, and their conduct does not call to mind the type of 'assault' which would warrant criminal prosecution," wrote U.S. District Judge William O. Bertelsman in his 2017 ruling for the plaintiffs. "The method of handcuffing that Sumner employed leads this Court to conclude that his actions were unreasonable and constituted excessive force as a matter of law."

Unfortunately, much the same could be said of entirely too much SRO conduct, as suggested by Starr. As a result, schools began moving away from their use in a shift accelerated by the protests against police brutality spurred by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. But those protests were fueled and rendered more violent than they might have otherwise been not just by fury over police brutality, but also by the social distancing, frustration, and economic disruption of pandemic lockdowns. These measures had their parallels in the school closures that isolated kids, far from friends and the normal patterns of life.

"School closures were intended to keep students safe during the pandemic, but for many, it's ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions," EdSource found as early as May 2020.

"Reuters surveyed school districts nationwide in February to assess the mental health impacts of full or partial school shutdowns," the news service reported last year. "Of the 74 districts that responded, 74% reported multiple indicators of increased mental health stresses among students. More than half reported rises in mental health referrals and counseling."

That is, after years of failing to adequately educate students, of implementing politicized curricula, and of handing discipline off to cops with handcuffs, public schools essentially abandoned kids in a time of crisis. The result was a lot of broken children who started acting out once they returned to the classroom.

"Schools across the country say they're seeing an uptick in disruptive behaviors," Chalkbeat's Kalyn Belsha noted in a September 2021 story about the return to in-person lessons. "Some are obvious and visible, like students trashing bathrooms, fighting over social media posts, or running out of classrooms. Others are quieter calls for help, like students putting their head down and refusing to talk."

"The behavior issues are a reflection of the stress the pandemic placed on children, experts say, upending their education, schedules, and social lives," Belsha added.

You can see what's coming next, right? After all, why should government institutions try something new when a failed old approach is just waiting to be readopted?

"Crime spikes force schools to reinstate resource officers as defund movement collapses," Fox News trumpeted last month in a law-and-order happy-dance. Among the districts signing off on cops in schools are Alexandria, VirginiaColumbus, Ohio, Fabens Independent School District in Texas, and Pomona Unified School District in California. Montgomery County, Maryland, is poised to do the same.

So, police officers who were removed from schools because of violent interactions with students are being placed back in classrooms because of a rise in violent behavior among kids directly attributable to those institutions' failures, and they're somehow expected to reduce the conflict. It's official mismanagement all the way down, feeding on its own inadequacy and spurring itself to greater depths of disaster, with the cost to be measured in the harm done to children.

We've come to expect government agencies to double down on bad policy rather than admit error, but they go too far when they victimize kids. If the public schools can't get a handle on properly educating children, we should at least be able to expect them to refrain from abuse.