In one of the first moves following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in late May, Minneapolis public schools moved to cut ties with law enforcement on June 2. Supported by thousands of letters from students and endorsed by the teachers’ union, the school board unanimously passed a resolution that ends the district’s contract with the Minneapolis police department to provide school resource officers (SROs), a growing field of law enforcement around the country.
What started in Minneapolis has sparked similar conversations in school districts nationwide, including here in Boulder County. But the idea of removing police from schools is not unique to this moment. It’s been a topic of discussion for years as the presence of SROs in schools has grown since the turn of the century, largely prompted by the Columbine High School shooting and subsequent high-profile mass school shootings.
“Although this just now is coming to the mainstream white consciousness, this work (to create police-free schools or to decrease the emphasis of policing in schools) has been going on in terms of organizers and advocacy groups for decades,” says Kathryn Wiley, a research associate working on issues of school discipline at the University of Denver and member of the NAACP Boulder County.
There are roughly 46,000 SROs in American schools and organizations like the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice and the ACLU have years of research showing that police presence disrupts learning environments for students of color particularly, but also LGBTQIA students and those with disabilities. These reports show that black and brown students are routinely and disproportionately impacted by policing in schools, leading to what many have called the school-to-prison pipeline. In many ways, schools have become the first point of entry black and brown students have with the criminal justice system, and an early indicator of the racial disparities that have become inherent in the American experience.
It’s why the NAACP Boulder County Branch is calling on the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) to discontinue its relationships with area law enforcement, which provide — and pay for — 10 SROs in area middle and high schools. But the discussion comes in the context of disproportionate discipline, something the school district, along with the NAACP and other groups like Engaged Latino Parents Advancing Student Outcomes (ELPASO), have been looking to address for almost two years.
That work has shown that within BVSD, students of color, particularly Latino students, are consistently disciplined at much higher rates than white students.
“Despite the progressive mentality of the Boulder community, the rates of racial disparities and discipline are comparable to national numbers,” Wiley says. “So that tells us that we’ve got some work to do.”
According to data provided by the NAACP and culled from the Colorado Department of Education, black and Latino students are disciplined disproportionate to their representation in the overall population. Over three school years from 2016 to 2019, black students were disciplined at a higher rate (252%) proportionate to their population (1%) in the schools. Hispanic or Latino students were disciplined 172% more and American Indian or Alaskan Native students 165% more than is proportionate. Although data for English Language Learners, students with disabilities and those in special education was only available for the 2018-19 school year, those groups were also disciplined at a higher rate proportionate to their population.
Also, despite significantly lower population in schools, referral of black students to law enforcement is 3.6 times that of white students. For Latino students, it’s 2.7 times that of white students. For in-school suspension the numbers are even more staggering: black students are punished four times more often than white students, and for Latino students its 2.3 times that of the white population.
What’s more, students of color are also being disciplined differently. Often, they are punished for more subjective offenses like disrespect, whereas white students are more likely to be disciplined for objectively breaking the rules for things like vaping or alcohol consumption, says Kristine Johnson, an educator and co-chair of NAACP’s education committee.
“What [the data is] saying is that we’re going to have to make fundamental changes in the way that we do discipline and the way we deal with behavior infractions from students,” she says. “This is part of what institutionalized racism looks like. It is really hard for a school district to get at things that are embedded within the ways we do things as a society.”
Overall, schools are generally much safer than is perceived by the community, Wiley says, but they aren’t necessarily safe for black and brown students. Those students are more likely to be criminalized or harshly punished for reasons that are prone to racial bias. For example, Wiley cites a 2016 study that looked at the eye movement of teachers and found that teachers look at students of color more often than white kids, which naturally leads to the increased discipline of these students. “Black and Latino students tend to be what some people have called hyper surveilled in schools,” she says.
In an effort to address these disparities within BVSD, the school board unanimously adopted revisions to its discipline policies on June 9, which haven’t been revised in almost 40 years, according to Superintendent Ron Anderson. The update is intended to streamline the reporting process for discipline incidents as well as make it uniform across the district, as it has historically been left up to individual schools.
“In our school system, we’ve had a long history of site-based management and in some ways that can work really well, but it works not well when you’re trying to make sure that you’re treating kids fairly and you’re all looking at the same types of infractions and supports for kids,” Anderson says. “The new discipline policies will get everybody on the same page. It’ll give us a clear sense of what data is being entered into our systems. And then it’ll give us an opportunity to reflect and react and to adjust policy over time to improve it. I don’t know that what we’ve done is perfect, but I think it’s a great first step.”
Johnson says that having clearer, more narrow guidelines in place can help address some of the discipline disparities, and it’s also an attempt to remove as many instances of subjectively as possible.
“I would say that there was nothing about the previous policies that were inherently discriminatory on paper,” she says. “It’s just that they left too much up to individual schools and individual teachers and administrators to implement. And that’s where our own unconscious biases get into some bad places.”
But it’s not just about changing the discipline disparities, Wiley says. It’s about redirecting efforts away from punitive discipline and refocusing the conversation around improving academic instruction and student engagement, access to resources, professional development for leadership and school family connectedness. And research shows that punitive discipline can have detrimental consequences to the academic, social and emotional outcomes of students.
“If we support closing the achievement gap, we should support alternatives to punitive discipline practices,” Wiley says.
Which is where the removal of SROs could significantly impact the success of students, as the presence of SROs can correlate with an increased use of punitive consequences and formal discipline overall.
“There’s little evidence that adding SROs improves school discipline or student outcomes,” Wiley says. “You would assume that if we’re going to add the [SROs], they’re going to clamp down on misconduct, we’re going to see declines in the rates of discipline. But that’s not what happens.”
Board member Richard Garcia says the school board has received hundreds of emails in support of removing SROs from schools, an effort he is also behind. Garcia says he’s heard from parents of Latino students who say the tickets they received through the school brings the whole family to court and there’s obvious concern over how that impacts their future, especially how it can affect things like receiving financial aid for college.
“The culture of the police department is obedience, instant compliance, authority. And if you don’t do what I tell you to do, things can escalate to a point where things could happen that we would regret,” Garcia says. “And I don’t want that to happen in our schools. I don’t want that to happen to our students of color in particular.”
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty says his office receives more than 200 minor-in-possession tickets each year from the schools (predominately for underage marijuana use) given out by SROs who often lack adequate tools to address substance abuse. By issuing a summons to court, the hope is that the kids will receive treatment through the criminal justice system. However, Dougherty says that’s not necessarily the best way to address these issues.
“Ideally that treatment, those services, whatever their needs are, whether it’s behavioral health or substance use, those would be provided at the school or community level without the involvement of the justice system,” he says. He does, however, point to benefits of having SROs in schools, such as referrals to his office that include cases of sexual abuse of a child by a parent, physical abuse by a teacher and hate crimes.
The ways SROs prevent and report major crimes is one of the main reasons Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle is in favor of keeping SROs in schools, in addition to the huge liability and concern of school shootings. (Currently, there is one Sheriff Department SRO in BVSD, and others within St. Vrain Valley School District.) While Pelle sees the benefits of SROs, he says, his force will abide by whatever the community decides.
“We police by consent,” Pelle says. “So whatever, ultimately, the school board and the superintendent and the parents decide they want us to do, we’ll do it.”
Still, more could be done to reduce juvenile interaction with law enforcement, Dougherty says, and it’s something his office has been working with school districts on with restorative justice initiatives. These efforts have significantly decreased juvenile detention rates, lengths of stay and probation, as well as eliminated any sort of incarceration for truancy, he says. More than 50% of juveniles coming through the system have been diverted from court and have their cases dismissed with no affect to their record moving forward, Dougherty says. And the number of truancy court hearings in Boulder County has decreased 88% since 2016.
However, Dougherty says there is a real need to better understand the data surrounding the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status with discipline in schools, law enforcement and the criminal justice system, “in order to recognize and address any disparity.”
What’s missing in a lot of the conversation around police involvement in schools, Dougherty says, is the issue of reducing gun violence and school shootings. The removal of SROs could also reignite the conversation around arming teachers. Although he admits, “We’re not going to solve it all at once, obviously. And I don’t want to hold one area of need to progress for another.”
Johnson, from the NAACP, says there are still many unanswered questions about how SROs operate in schools. To date, she hasn’t seen any information on how complaints are handled, clear job descriptions and oversight policies with the law enforcement agencies or what sort of training the officers must go through.
Nationally, there isn’t any standardization of SRO programs, which also presents problems with determining their effectiveness, says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“It’s a state-by-state, region-by-region, city-by-city issue,” he says. “And so what you might have in one city or area being called an SRO program is not even close by definition because they’re not carefully selecting officers, they’re not specifically training them.”
For starters, he says, SROs shouldn’t be involved in school discipline at all. Their main job is protecting the student body from outside threat, as well as educating kids about law-related topics and providing informal support to school nurses and mental health workers based on their experiences.
But Canady attributes increased safety in schools over the last several decades to the rise of SROs on school campuses. He also points out juvenile arrests have plummeted over the same time period, something he credits to de-escalation tactics and reduction in arrests in schools for things that kids would be arrested for “on the streets.”
Wiley disagrees, however. She says that there is little evidence that SROs make schools safer from both school shootings or violence in general.
“And they definitely make schools unsafe for black and Latino students because of racial profiling in arrests,” she says. “Adding SROs can increase adverse outcomes for kids, and it doesn’t buy us more safety.”
There’s also the issue of allocation of resources. Unlike some other school districts, for example in Denver and Minneapolis, BVSD does not fund SROs. Rather they are provided by the local law enforcement agencies, and removing them from schools will not necessarily mean any cost-savings or funds that can be redirected for the district.
“None of that changes the fact that just because something is free, it doesn’t mean that it’s good, or that it’s the right thing,” says school board member Lisa Sweeney-Miran, who is in favor of the proposal to remove SROs. “And no amount of sort of budget-friendly impact is going to turn police officers into social workers or mental health professionals.”
The funds currently allocated for SROs at the city and county level could, however, go toward other initiatives with the school district, Johnson posits, as local jurisdictions already provide other services like public and mental health support, after-school enrichment activities and more to the district. The City of Boulder, for example, has budgeted $747,169 to SROs for fiscal year 2020, up more than $25,000 from the year before. (Boulder Police Department did not respond to requests for comment before press time.)
“If we have the opportunity to look at the big picture of what kids truly need and how we can best provide for those needs, we’re hoping we can shift the role of law enforcement in serving those needs and move to addressing the needs more appropriately with the right people with the right training,” Johnson says. “Whether we get SROs removed or not, I think that at the very least we are moving the discussion forward about the role of law enforcement in BVSD and what’s going on in terms of discipline, especially with our black and Latino students.”
The process for deciding about the future of SROs within BVSD is yet to be determined in a lot of ways. The school board is scheduled to have a public discussion about SROs within the district at the June 23 board meeting, with the hopes of laying out a clearer time line and engaging more of the community in the conversation.
“I think a lot of people’s biggest worry when a tragedy like the killing of George Floyd happens is that it goes away and there’s no change,” Superintendent Anderson says. “And I think that I’m encouraged by the energy around equity in our community, that we know and understand that whether academically or through discipline that we have disproportionality issues … but it’s going to take our entire community owning that, understanding that and joining the conversation.”