In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, some Iowa schools—rightly—are reconsidering local police officers working, as employees, in their buildings.
Des Moines is moving toward eliminating these positions, called Student Resource Officers (SROs). In April, before Floyd’s murder, the Iowa City school district actually considered increasing its police presence. But the proposal was voted down when board members looked at studies that document how SROs can do more harm than good. SROs end up overpolicing students, especially students of color and students with disabilities, feeding a school-to-prison pipeline. And there’s no evidence they make anyone more safe.
It’s the same in dozens of schools across Iowa, with about 150 SROs statewide interacting with children as young as six in elementary, middle, and high schools. A recent ACLU national report found that Iowa has 152 police officers stationed in schools—three times the number of social workers and four times the number of psychologists. Nationally, SROs are in 71 percent of our nation’s schools.
This is so wrong, for so many reasons.
The goal of a school district allocating precious funding to an SRO might be to keep students safer, but there is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety. In a number of recent school shootings, an armed security guard or SRO was on duty.
Meanwhile, what can be documented is that having an SRO causes real harm. Police officers in school do exactly what they are trained to do—question, detain, handcuff, and arrest. This leads to greater student alienation and a more threatening school environment.
A scuffle at lunch can turn into time in juvenile court. Taking someone’s expensive phone, even as a joke, could leave you with a felony conviction.
Many SROs try to serve a hybrid role—as a “friend” to troubled children and someone who encourages tough discussions about drug use. But a police officer is not a friend. An SRO may be your confidant one minute, but then in the next may arrest you and possibly your peers.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in numerous cases of SROs brutalizing kids in which a police officer wouldn't normally be involved. For example, a 5-year-old with ADHD had a tantrum and was arrested by the SRO and charged with assault of a police officer in California. An SRO tasered and broke the arm of a high school sophomore in Kansas for ignoring commands to pull up his fashionably saggy pants. In South Carolina, a student simply spoke up against the brutal arrest of a classmate and was arrested, handcuffed, charged as an adult, and taken to jail.
In an era when every week seems to bring a new and horrible video of a Black person being wrongly shot by a police officer, eliminating SROs in our school has taken on a new and urgent meaning. The national ACLU report documents figures found in similar studies:
- Iowa is among the 10 worst states for arrests of minority students in schools, with 125 black students arrested per 10,000 students.
- Black girls in Iowa are nine times more likely to be arrested at school than white girls, the second-worst rate in the country.
- Disabled students have an arrest rate seven times that of nondisabled students.
Governor Reynolds has pledged to improve mental health services for Iowa youth, and we support that goal. Eliminating SROs in our schools and plowing savings into trained mental health workers would be an excellent step toward keeping our children healthier and safer.
We urge parents and community members to check with their schools and find out if they are one of the many Iowa schools with SROs. Then contact your local school board members, superintendent, city council, and state representatives and tell them what should be obvious: Our schools need fewer cops and more counselors.
Mark Stringer is the executive director of the ACLU of Iowa. The above statistics and more can be found in the ACLU report, “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Iowa Students.”