Benefits, harm of school police the focus of state task force hearing

June 30, 2020

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest to demand the defunding of the Los Angeles school district police outside of the school board headquarters on June 23.

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The presence of police on school campuses does not necessarily result in safer schools or fewer suspensions or expulsions, researchers told legislators Tuesday at the state’s first hearing on the future of school police.

The findings, reported by nonpartisan research firm WestEd, were among the numerous expert testimonies heard during the Task Force on Safe Schools hearing. Police, advocates and academic researchers also participated.

Hosted by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the hearing was the first of three exploring the role of police — if any — on school campuses. It’s part of a larger effort by the California Department of Education to address racism in the education system, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of George Floyd.

“(Recent events) are a call to action for us to evaluate the role of police in every aspect of our society, including schools,” Thurmond said at the hearing.

While social justice advocates argued for a total ban on school police, others said police can serve an important role in school discipline and campus climate if they’re well-trained in conflict resolution and adolescent psychology.

“Do school resource officers make schools safer? At least in my district, the answer is yes,” said Brian Lande, a school resource officer in Richmond. “In my district, police are committed to building relationships with students. We do not go into schools looking to arrest students. We’re there to build trust and rapport.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, said that the best way to make schools safer is further investment in social-emotional learning and alternatives to discipline, such as restorative justice. She noted that suspensions and expulsions in California have dropped by 40% and 50% respectively in the past decade as some districts have begun emphasizing restorative justice.

UCLA history professor Kelly Lytle Hernandez, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, said that school police have a long history of singling out Black youth and that more training will not improve the underlying problem.

“The history is quite clear. Police in this country have disproportionately harmed Black people,” she said. “The idea of police reform is a fool’s errand. We really have to reinvent the idea of police as we know it.”

School shootings were also part of the debate, but studies are inconclusive, WestEd researchers said. Although school shootings have occurred at schools with on-campus police, other shootings have been averted. And data is scarce on how many threats of violence generally have been deterred by police.

The next task force hearing will be late next week, Thurmond said.

In addition to addressing school police, the California Department of Education will be providing implicit bias training for all school employees and creating an ethnic studies requirement for high school students. In the past few weeks Thurmond has also hosted a series of student panels on the issue of racism in schools.

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