Alabama Youth Justice Alliance

A New Approach to Police in Schools

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in December was a tragedy and no one can deny that it has changed the way we look at school, violence, mental health, and a host of other issues. It has also changed the fight for those of us who work in the juvenile justice policy world. Suddenly, we are fighting knee jerk reactions in the form of bad policy changes from legislators who are often trying to appease the public and their own consciences, ignoring glaring evidence of ineffectiveness in the process. An increase in police presence in schools is one of those proven ineffective policies that has gained popularity since the Sandy Hook shooting. This week, we applaud Denver Public Schools for their efforts to limit the reach of police in schools.

Between the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theatre last year and the mass shooting at Columbine High School more than a decade ago, Colorado is no stranger to mass gun violence. There are police officers in Denver Public Schools, much like there are in schools across the nation. However, rather than following the trend of increasing the unchecked police presence in their schools, Denver is taking a different approach. This week, the city’s police department and public school system are signing an eight page agreement outlining the terms of their relationship. According to the Washington Post, “The agreement emphasizes differences between student offenses that should be handled by educators and those that need police action, urges de-escalation of campus conflict when possible, and supports ‘restorative justice’ practices that focus on making amends for misconduct rather than punishing for it.”

This new agreement codifies an important understanding for all school districts who allow police officers to roam their halls: the school environment is different. The presence of police officers must be tempered with an understanding of the purpose of school. School is a place where children are free to learn, sometimes through mistakes and misbehavior, where students have the right to feel safe and protected by school officials, where expression is freer than it is in the world at large. School hallways are not like the streets. Very rarely is the misbehavior that happens at school criminal. It is imperative that school districts act to protect their students and define the differences between the learning environment and society at large, which includes defining the role of all who enter the school. It is time that police officers were subject to the same requirements as any other adult walking into a school.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the presence of police officers in schools does little to prevent violence and instead, increases the number of students arrested for minor misbehavior and funneled into the school to prison pipeline. However, this is preventable. Steps like the one taken by Denver Public Schools this week are an example of one way to do that. We must ensure that in an attempt to make sense of a senseless tragedy, we do not allow the knee jerk reactions of policymakers to become the norm.

As a society, our hope is that because of our reactions to Sandy Hook, we can look back in ten years and see that there have been no more school shootings. My fear is that in ten years, we will look at our schools and realize that we made decisions out of anger and pain and that as a consequence, we let the terrible actions of a few sick people fundamentally change the nature of schools in the United States.

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