More Than a Few Rogue Cops: the Disturbing History of Police in Schools

Another week, another video of police abuse surfaces. This time the video shows San Antonio school resource officer Joshua Kehm body-slamming 12-year-old Rhodes Middle School student Janissa Valdez. Valdez was talking with another student, trying to resolve a verbal conflict between the two, when Kehm entered and attacked her. “Janissa! Janissa, you okay?” a student asked before exclaiming, “She landed on her face!” In a statement on the incident, co-director of the Advancement Project Judith Browne Davis wrote, “Once again, a video captured by a student offers a sobering reminder that we cannot entrust school police officers to intervene in school disciplinary matters that are best suited for trained educators and counselors.”

This senseless attack on a student is immediately reminiscent of video taken by kids at a South Carolina high school in October. While classmates looked on, school resource officer (SRO) Ben Fields slammed a 16-year-old student to the ground and then dragged her by her hair across the floor after she refused to hand over her cellphone.

At times like this, media talking heads and editorial boards wring their hands over “bad apples” in the police department—both Kehm and Fields have since been fired. Yet, the problem of police violence goes deeper than just a few rogue cops. Deeply rooted institutional racism and sexism in the United States informs the behavior of the police. Recently, books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the growth of civil rights protest by groups like Black Lives Matter have highlighted the deep-seated racism in the American criminal justice system and how it targets people of color, but lesser known is how that same bias pervades the classroom.

A host of studies shows that black students are more likely to be disciplined while in school, a process of targeting that begins in preschool where black children make up nearly half of students suspended during the year while only comprising 18% of preschool enrollments. Throughout their school careers, black boys are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white counterparts. For black girls, the situation is even more extreme, as they are six times more likely to be suspended or expelled.

Once police are added to the equation, the racial disparities of the American criminal justice system are brought inside the school. The fact that schools already disproportionately discipline non-white students translates into school resource officers that are more likely to refer students to the juvenile justice system. This racist disciplining creates and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

Some will say that, for all their faults, SROs are needed to protect students from violence on campus—the image of Columbine is always invoked around discussions of police in school. But Columbine employed an SRO at the time of the shooting. In fact, while the shooting was going on at Columbine, 800 police officers and eight SWAT teams surrounded the school. Yet, all refused to confront the shooters, preferring to “contain the perimeter.” The truth is having police on campus does not curb violence.


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