The Des Moines Police Department’s proposal to increase the number of police in Des Moines schools should be disturbing to anyone concerned about too many students being funneled into the juvenile criminal justice system—a trend known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
We should not respond to tragic but rare incidents such as Newtown by putting police officers (known as School Resource Officers or SROs) into schools at record numbers without understanding and addressing the problems of education in a law enforcement environment.
Numerous studies show that a significant portion of SRO activity deals with garden-variety student misconduct that does not seriously threaten school safety. Where SROs are present, they end up dealing with relatively minor misbehaviors, such as outbursts in the classroom or minor fights.
12-Year-Old Handcuffed For Doodling on Desk
In New York City in 2010, a 12-year-old student who wrote "I love my friends Abby and Faith" on her desk was handcuffed, "perp-walked" out of the school in front of her peers, and charged with vandalism.
A 15-year-old in Milwaukee in 2010 was handcuffed by police after being accused of stealing chicken nuggets worth $2.60 from the school cafeteria.
In Springfield, Massachusetts in 2007, a 14-year-old boy who refused to walk with a teacher to her office was handcuffed, taken to the police station, and charged with "disturbing a lawful assembly."
And in Johnston High School here in Iowa in 2011, two boys got in a scuffle. Neither one sustained even minor injuries. With the involvement of the school resource officer, one of the boys, who was 17 and had never been in trouble before, was formally charged with disorderly conduct and entered the juvenile justice system.
Over-Criminalizing Student Behaviors
These are school discipline matters, not police matters. We must make sure that Des Moines and other Iowa schools do not unintentionally send good kids on the path to prison.
A strict criminal justice response to juvenile behaviors can prompt a student's downward spiral into delinquency by exposing the student to the wrong element and foreclosing on positive opportunities. Research, in fact, shows that over-criminalizing student behavior leads to higher dropout rates.
Minorities Disproportionately Arrested
The impact of school over-policing is especially harsh on youth of color. Students of color often are arrested by police for the same behavior that is handled in-school in the case of whites.
ACLU research in Connecticut, for example, found that white students in East Hartford were almost never arrested for possessing or using illegal drugs. However, most African-American students committing the same infraction were indeed arrested.
Data from U.S. Department of Education shows a similar trend: In Des Moines for the 2009-2010 school year, African-American students made up only 17 percent of the student body but accounted for 38 percent of school-based arrests.
Des Moines and other Iowa schools must not rush into putting more police in schools without considering the unintended consequences for our young people. And we must make sure that when police are in schools, their roles are limited and defined, and they are well-trained to work with youth.
While all of us want to make sure our schools are safe, too often SROs are used without clear policies and adequate training for both the officers and educators. Stationing more police in our schools can have serious, negative consequences.
March 1, 2013