State law encourages alternatives to school-based police while federal grants increase their presence

October 4, 2013
Police officer teaching elementary school children about safety. ©

Police officer teaching elementary school children about safety. Credit:

A new law that encourages school districts to consider alternative approaches to school safety beyond just posting police on their campuses was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this week, just days after the U.S. Department of Justice awarded $44 million to beef up the number of police officers in schools nationwide, including California.

The two approaches to school safety – one encouraging alternative approaches to law enforcement such as using conflict resolution practices and mental health professionals and the other focusing on increasing police presence – encapsulate the still heated debate about how to keep students safe from harm. In a sign of how divisive the issue of school policing remains in California, Assembly Bill 549 deliberately refrains from restricting what police can do on campus and leaves it up to school districts to decide which student behaviors call for mental health intervention and which require police action. As originally proposed, the bill would have limited school police to handling dangerous or physically violent situations but that language was removed in committee.

The law now simply “encourages” districts to update their school safety plans to include clear guidelines for roles and responsibilities of mental health workers and school counselors as well as police officers in creating safe school environments.

But even just encouraging districts to include these alternative strategies in their safety plans is viewed as victory by Rubén Lizardo, deputy director of the Oakland-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization PolicyLink, which co-sponsored the bill. He said that putting mental health workers on par with police officers in ensuring school safety was significant step that could lead to increased adoption of emotional supports and interventions in schools. “If there’s a superintendent that wants to tap into a behavioral program, he could now legitimately say, ‘Our state’s approach to campus safety includes this,'” Lizardo said.

Just lobbying for the bill provided a vehicle for advocates of alternative approaches to educate legislators about what Lizardo called the “inadvertent negatives” of police on campus, including what studies have identified as the disproportionate number of arrests of African American and Latino youth and the referral of tens of thousands of students to the juvenile justice system for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct and minor schoolyard fights.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, school police handed out nearly 10,200 misdemeanor tickets to students in 2011 for fighting, daytime-curfew violations and other minor infractions that community groups say might better be handled by school officials or counselors, according to an account published by the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news organization. Of those ticketed, 43 percent were children 14 or younger, including an 11-year-old who was ticketed, suspended for one day, handcuffed, driven to the police station, booked, fingerprinted and photographed in a mug shot for what the citation termed a “mutual fight” over a basketball game, according to the account. Research has found that suspending, expelling or referring a student to the juvenile justice system increases the risk that the student will drop out of school and become incarcerated as an adult.

Clarification for campus police

This clarification of roles is also being pursued at the national level through the School Discipline Consensus Project, an effort launched by the Council of State of Governments Justice Center in coordination with the federal Supportive School Discipline Initiative of 2011. The project, which is collecting data on school discipline and will convene experts in school safety, behavioral health and law enforcement, studies the same question that California lawmakers have asked: What, if any, role should local law enforcement play in enforcing a school’s code of conduct?

The California law gives a nod to research that has tied a reduction in school suspension and expulsion rates to interventions such as the framework known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a system used in an estimated 750 California schools to evaluate programs that teach social and emotional skills. The law encourages schools to place a priority on mental health and intervention services and to create a positive school climate, a loosely defined term that relates to how connected and supported students feel at school.

Advocates praised the law as “a victory for youth and families” that could increase conflict resolution practices and decrease school expulsions and referrals to the juvenile justice system, according to a statement from the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of advocacy groups including the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

In schools, police officers are known as school resource officers but they work for city or county law enforcement departments and are most often paid by federal, state or city funds. Typically, they are assigned to the same school or schools for several years in a row, to strengthen their collaboration with school administrators, teachers and students. Their duties may include teaching the anti-drug curriculum called D.A.R.E. to students, patrolling school grounds and hallways, and intervening in student conflicts, including allegations of bullying.

School resource officers are the fastest growing segment of law enforcement, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers, which estimates that more than 10,000 police officers serve in schools nationwide. The number of officers dramatically increased after the mass shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, the same year the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Policing Services initiated the “COPS in Schools” grant program, according to a 2011 study published in Justice Quarterly, edited by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. “The increased use of police in schools is driven at least in part by increased federal funding,” the study states.

Ensuring student safety

In Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promoted increasing police officers in schools as a necessary safety step.

“In the wake of past tragedies, it’s clear that we need to be willing to take all possible steps to ensure that our kids are safe when they go to school,” Holder said in a news release announcing the funding Sept. 27.

The Justice Department grants include nearly $6 million to fund school police officers in 44 California cities and counties, including funds to put eight more police officers in Modesto schools, two additional officers in Hayward schools and four additional officers in Chula Vista schools.

Officers in schools describe the experience as a way to build relationships with students and contribute to an orderly school environment.

“The positive thing about having officers assigned to high school and middle school is that they get to know the kids,” said Sgt. Ozzie Dominguez, spokesman for the Visalia Police Department, which received a $350,000 grant that would bring three police officers to middle schools in the Visalia Unified School District, pending approval from the city council. “They’re able not just to respond promptly, but ideally prevent things from happening.”

Joseph Grubbs, president of the California School Resource Officers’ Association, acknowledged criticism of school resource officers and their potential impact on higher school suspension rates, but he said the officers’ primary focus is ensuring the safety of all students.

“I am not a big advocate of suspension,” he said. “If a kid does something stupid, we’re not going to reward him by suspending him. But if this is a kid who is out of control every single day making this a terrible learning environment for all the other kids, we’ve got to get him out of there.”

A 2010 report published by the U.S.  Justice Department and authored by Barbara Raymond, a program director at The California Endowment, points to the lack of solid research showing that school resource officers necessarily make schools safer.

“It will be apparent that despite their popularity, few systematic evaluations of the effectiveness of SROs exist,” states the report, “Assigning Police Officers to Schools.” The report notes, “Studies of SRO effectiveness that have measured actual safety outcomes have mixed results. Some show an improvement in safety and a reduction in crime; others show no change. Typically, studies that report positive results from SRO programs rely on participants’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the program rather than on objective evidence.”

This week, the Dignity in Schools Campaign is holding a National Week of Action Against School Pushout that seeks to reframe the dropout issue as a crisis of school discipline practices that are exacerbated by the presence of police on campus.

On Thursday, the campaign showcased “restorative justice” models of discipline and conflict resolution at FreeLA High School, a school for academically at-risk students in Inglewood, and at Augustus Hawkins High School in south Los Angeles. “These approaches focus on building healthy relationships between teachers and students, and treating discipline as a teaching moment, rather than an opportunity to punish and push kids out of school,” said the Dignity in Schools Campaign.

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her @JaneAdams.

Note:  EdSource receives grant support from The California Endowment, which has no control over its editorial policies. 

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