Last week another video emerged of a 12-year-old girl being slammed against the pavement and again the first question asked was, “What did this girl do to make the officer behave that way?”
The answer: There is nothing an unarmed 12-year-old could do to justify that kind of violent behavior from a school resource officer. Questions like this make it acceptable to criminalize children for behaving like children, and give the adults put in charge of their care the authority to harm them.
Counselors Instead of Officers
The first question that should be asked is why school resource officers, rather than school counselors who are trained to deescalate conflict, are the first to be called to deal with difficult students?
A report from the National Center of Education Statistics shows that 63 percent of public middle schools employed school resource officers during the 2013-14 school year. However, only 12 states have laws that have training requirements for officers who are sent into classrooms. Even fewer have laws that require training on how to deal with children.
The increase in school resource officers has been tied to the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting. However, the schools in which mass shootings have occurred do not resemble the schools where school resource officers are most likely to be present. School resource officers are placed in schools where most of the students are non-white or low income, even though school shootings are perpetrated by white males. Rather than base their response to the very real threat of school shootings on what was known about the problem, decision-makers deployed officers in low-income schools with non-white student bodies throughout the country.
Research has shown that placing police in schools increases physical danger to youth, rather than decreasing it. Students who attend schools with school resource officers are at an increased risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. Although students of color do not commit more serious misbehavior than white students, they are more likely to be referred to law enforcement. And on school sites where school resource officers are used, behavior issues are reported to the police at higher rates than on sites where no officer is present.
The Ripple Effects
Although these issues of safety in schools impact all students, girls are disproportionately disciplined at higher rates. Although boys still make up most of the juvenile justice system, there has been an increase in the number of girls who are arrested in recent years—with girls being more likely than boys to be arrested for status offenses (things that are illegal because of their age).
Nearly one-third of U.S. youths between the ages of 12-17 experience two or more types of childhood trauma. We should not be increasing that number by exposing them to trauma in school. Schools should be safe and caring environments in which students can make mistakes and learn from them—not a place where students are harmed, criminalized and exposed to trauma.
The solution to school conflict and child trauma is to employ counselors who are trained to respond and improve the behavior of young people. Yet, a recent report shows that many of the biggest school districts employ more school resource officers than counselors. There is a growing body of research that suggests that students learn how to resolve conflict and learn social-emotional skills through well-executed restorative justice programs.
Instead of redirecting the behavior of this 12-year-old girl, or getting to the bottom of where her behavior is coming from, the interaction with this officer likely taught her that she cannot trust the police to protect her. In order to better serve children and create safer learning environments, schools must increase the number of school counselors, decrease the number of school resource officers and increase professional development for teachers and administrators that address racial bias and classroom management.