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Do police belong in schools? | Pro/Con

The Inquirer turned to the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s expert on school police and the Philadelphia School District’s superintendent to debate.

School Police Officer Donald lewis and his Men of Mitchell walking the halls of the school on their way to speak to a first-grade class at Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia.
School Police Officer Donald lewis and his Men of Mitchell walking the halls of the school on their way to speak to a first-grade class at Mitchell Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

As cities across the country debate police reform in the wake of massive civil unrest following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, many people have questioned whether officers belong in schools.

After the shooting at Parkland, Fla.’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, many people, including President Donald Trump, called for additional police officers in every school. Others, however, argue that the presence of these officials — known as school resource officers — can exacerbate existing issues, or create unintended consequences, particularly for students of color.

The Inquirer turned to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s expert on school police and the Philadelphia School District’s superintendent to debate: Do police belong in schools?

NO: Police presence exacerbates the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline.

By Ghadah Makoshi

Police should not be in our schools. The harm caused by a police presence in schools far outweighs any arguments about the presence of police making a school safer. The acceleration of the number of students entering the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline in recent decades makes clear the dangers of bringing police into schools.

Study after study has shown that arrest rates, particularly for Black students for minor offenses, are higher in schools that have officers, despite efforts to teach de-escalation. Arrests have terrible consequences for students. When a student is arrested, the odds of that student dropping out of high school doubles. Just a single court appearance for a student makes that student four times more likely to drop out. Those statistics bear out in real-world consequences. Just 26% of students arrested graduate from high school.

Which begs the question: If the consequences for students being arrested are so significant in shaping their young adulthood, why are police officers even in schools in the first place?

Advocates say that police presence in schools is a matter of keeping students safe.

The CDC estimates that of the total number of student deaths, less than 2% happen at schools. School shootings have occurred at schools with and without armed law enforcement officers, where sometimes they have intervened, but in most situations, for example, Columbine, Colo., and Parkland, Fla., they have not been able to stop the violence. Additionally, there is no conclusive evidence indicating that school police reduce crime among students.

Even the most caring and best-trained police officer cannot, and should not be expected to, operate as counselors in our schools.

Ghadah Makoshi

And if the expectation of a police officer in a school is to intervene in deadly situations and become martyrs, then the type of people who are going to be attracted to that job are not the type of people that we want to be in charge of the safety of our students.

We want people in our schools who can interact in a compassionate way; people who understand childhood development. Schools need counselors, not police. Even the most caring and best-trained police officer cannot, and should not be expected to, operate as counselors in our schools.

A study published in Adolescent Research Review in 2016 reviewed and analyzed existing research and found that schools with police have higher rates of exclusionary discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, than do other comparable schools. Evidence shows that a police presence can mean increased rates of student arrests for minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or simple assault, resulting in greater numbers of children than necessary being exposed to the justice system. Importantly, youth of color are considerably more likely than white youth to experience these harms.

Implicit bias plays a role in school discipline when students of color are seen as threatening and are disproportionately punished and arrested.

And despite good intentions, officers can make school climates less inclusive and reduce trust, which undermines effective behavior management. Student misbehavior, including criminal behavior, is less likely in schools that have inclusive social climates. These are schools where students feel valued, respected, listened to, and part of a community. These are schools with adequate support and resources for students. These are not schools that prioritize a police presence.

There is no compelling reason that justifies or excuses the harm done to our most vulnerable students with their continued presence in schools. If we are going to divest from the police, an excellent place to start would be getting police out of our schools.

Ghadah Makoshi is the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s community advocate focusing on school policing reform.

YES: Safety officers, replacing traditional police, will help us best serve students.

By William R. Hite Jr.

As the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, I believe there is a place for police in our schools, though I know reforms are needed in order to best support our students, educators, and community members.

Our Office of School Safety (OSS) stands committed to dismantling institutional racism, classism, and social injustices in our schools, communities, and nation. I, and other district leaders, recognize the critical need to recreate the district’s current school safety approach, and we will do so by cultivating a program that provides school safety officers (SSO) with the tools to understand adolescent development, trauma, and de-escalation.

As we prepare for the 2020-21 academic year, the OSS is currently reviewing and making necessary operational changes that will revamp the culture of discipline in schools, and ensure our practices and protocols align with the values of the community and show respect for our students. It is important for all us to take into account that although the majority of a school safety officer’s work occurs within school walls, the OSS has a duty to protect students, staff, and administrators from internal and external threats. This is a daily challenge, and as we reimagine the office, we must keep this critical and essential safety role in mind.

Our new safety officers are required to complete a mandated training program that includes, but is not limited to: de-escalation and conflict management, racial equity and diversity, child development, and traumatic stress in adolescents. Every year, all officers will be required to complete a series of extensive in-service and specialized trainings that instill procedurally just practices and support ever-changing school climates.

We have eliminated the title “school police” and, at the start of the year, officers will be recognized as school safety officers. The title change is in accordance with Pennsylvania’s Safe Schools Legislation, and the change allows for students to understand the responsibility of our personnel — which is to actively create a safe and supportive educational environment. Safety officers are not police officers, which means they are not armed, nor do they make arrests. Instead, they alternatively help to minimize juvenile arrests by serving as a liaison between students and the Philadelphia Police Department.

Our vision is to continue reducing the number of students being arrested. To meet this objective, the Office of School Safety will be working in collaboration with the Philadelphia Police Department’s School Diversion Unit, the Department of Human Services, and the District Attorney’s Office to significantly expand our diversion efforts to serve more students. Through this enhancement, we will gain additional insight into diversion services, streamline our processes, and expedite results. All of which would help us create a comprehensive program that deters negative contact with children.

We are also gradually phasing-out current SSO uniforms. They will be replaced with a more scaled-down and approachable, yet readily identifiable, uniform. Additionally, the current day-to-day use of metal detectors will be revised to ensure the process is conducted in a procedurally just, humane, and dignified manner.

We are developing a comprehensive communication plan focused on organizational transparency and integrity that will help build relationships and trust within the community. We will be updating our website with meaningful content that will include our training programs, code of conduct, data and reports, and other safety resources.

The district needs the OSS to help us collaborate with students, social workers, teachers, administrators, and other community organizations to ensure we are prioritizing student health and safety while promoting an enriching learning environment. We will continue to coordinate virtual meetings with youth advocacy groups to continue fostering a two-way dialogue, and give students the opportunity to be a part of the conversation and plans moving forward.

We know there is much work to be done, and we are committed to doing it with urgency, listening to feedback, and emphasizing respect for our students, staff, and school communities.

William R. Hite Jr. is the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.

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