Earlier this month, video footage of a white male police officer violently flipping over and then dragging a black female student out of her desk at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina went viral. The reason for such a reaction: simply texting in class and refusing to leave the room after the teacher and an administrator requested she exit.
Overreactions to petty classroom misbehavior are far more common when law enforcement officials are stationed at schools, demonstrating a nationwide trend of institutionalized violence taking root too close to the classroom. Schools are not prisons, and students should not be treated like criminals. As the video of Officer Ben Fields assaulting a student in a South Carolina high school shows, placing police officers in schools does not make the institutions safer; it can create danger.
The police officers on duty in schools are referred to as school resource officers (SROs). The number of SROs in schools took off in the 1990s and the number has only grown since, with great surges after the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings in 1999 and 2012, respectively. The idea was to protect students, but if the officers themselves are abusive toward students, then nothing is being solved. In fact, new problems are created. With SROs disciplining students, students are more likely to be punished through the legal system as opposed to their school system.
This dynamic often targets students of color, who are more frequently and more brutally punished. A study conducted by the Department of Education found that 70 percent of the students arrested or referred to law enforcement during the 2009–2010 academic year were black or Latino, though these students made up only 42 percent of the surveyed population. Students of color have a considerably higher risk of being affected by SROs because officers are more common in predominantly non-white schools. Without an SRO, black students are 1.3 times more likely to be arrested than white students. However, with an SRO present, black students are 2.2 times more likely to be arrested than white students.
These statistics indicate that SROs target students of color and their presence endangers them more heavily than any other demographic. As the number of SROs increases, students of color are even further discriminated against.
But regardless of race or age, SROs are allowed to use physical force to restrain students if they feel it is necessary. In September, a Kentucky SRO was brought to court for using handcuffs to restrain two disabled children, both under ten years old. This is not an isolated incident; in 2012, 4,000 students in the United States were subjected to handcuffs as a form of restraint by SROs. Handcuffs are among the hardware that (in most school districts) is forbidden for school faculty, but not for SROs.
SROs’ tactics are often more severe than simply restraining students. In February of last year, an SRO at a Texas high school tased 17-year-old student Noe Niño de Rivera after he tried to break up a fight between other students. This shock was so powerful it sent Niño de Rivera to the hospital, where doctors put him into a medically induced coma for 52 days. Following the incident, he was placed in a rehabilitation center to recover. SROs have also been known to use pepper spray and nightsticks on students. Between 2006 and 2014, SROs directly sprayed chemicals at over 199 students and indirectly contaminated over 1,000 students in Birmingham, Alabama. In October of 2014, an SRO at a Baltimore middle school beat a 13-year-old girl with a metal baton so hard she required 10 stitches. Schools are for learning, not violence — especially from those who are supposedly protecting the institution. Students should not have to fear that their physical safety is at risk by going to school.
Physical brutality is not the only threat SROs introduce to schools; they also increase the number of students with criminal records. When an SRO is present, teachers and administrators are more likely to ask them for help when a student is misbehaving. In Texas, SROs write over 100,000 misdemeanor tickets every year, which students rarely receive legal aid to fight. In 2013, black students in Brazos County, Texas received these misdemeanor tickets four times more frequently than white students. These criminal charges can be written for simply swearing or refusing to leave a room — matters that are better handled in the principal’s office.
This practice reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline. Students are fast-tracked out of school and into the criminal justice system. Public schools in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to have SROs policing the hallways, which thereby increases the probability of sending at-risk youth through the school-to-prison pipeline. The “crimes” these students are being sent to court for are usually non-violent. They are being punished far too severely — the justice system is for criminals, not misbehaving children.
Law enforcement in schools creates more problems than it solves. The presence of officers increases students’ physical danger and the chances that they will find themselves fighting unwarranted legal battles. Furthermore, students of color are forced to be more careful than their white peers because they are more frequently targeted. The places where they learn have become nesting grounds for officers who are highly likely to unfairly hurt and punish them. SROs do not make schools safer for students. They make schools places where students roam the hallways in fear.
Sydney Hemmendinger is an undeclared sophomore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.