By Wendy Gomez
This paper explores the potential of abolishing school resource officers (SROs), their history in education, and their role in exacerbating the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline and racial injustice. In the midst of calls to defund the police, policies to abolish police in schools are a vital first step. This paper argues that there is an interconnected history between SROs and surveilling youth-led civil rights movements. Today, we see the results—SROs have negatively impacted Black and brown youth subjugating them to higher rates of school-related arrests. Using historical case studies of Oakland and Los Angeles, this research draws on the potential to enact policies that end police in schools. Additionally, this paper places organizers as key actors in policy change. The analysis situates the movement to eliminate SROs as an extension of the civil rights struggle and as a microcosm of the modern-day struggle for abolition.
"They sold prison the way they pipeline
—Tahj Malik Chandler (Saba)
Calls for divestment from police and punitive systems are now at the forefront of national discussions following uprisings led by Black Lives Matter and affiliated organizations in the summer of 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to underscore racism and violence entrenched in policing institutions. During another watershed moment in the reckoning on police brutality, demands to end the carceral systems and state violence are at the forefront of national debates and policy.
In 2020, there were renewed calls to defund the police in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and many other Black people who were murdered at the hands of state violence (Wortham 2020). The Black Lives Matter movement first emerged in 2013 from three Black women organizers—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—who created a Black-centered political and movement-building project called #BlackLivesMatter in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer George Zimmerman (Taylor 2016, 166). In the intervening years, the movement has gone from the periphery of U.S. policy to 10-straight days of protest on unchecked state violence against Black people in almost every state—small and major cities alike. The movement has not only shed light on police violence, but is now intertwined with policy and budgetary demands, particularly the demand to abolish and defund the police.
This research looks at one aspect of those policing institutions—school resource officers. The demand to defund or cut ties with school resource officers (SROs) has been brewing in criminal justice circles for decades because of their central role in the school-to-prison pipeline. Around the country, the Black Lives Matter movement is giving this demand a window of opportunity to succeed.
SROs are armed career law enforcement with sworn authority from a police department to work directly in K-12 schools (National Association of School Resource Officers). SROs first emerged in the 1950s right after school integration—often in direct response to youth led civil rights movements—and then surged in the 1990s with new federal funding allocated in response to school shootings. Some stress an SRO is a police officer first and should not be thought of as a school administrator or teacher (Umphrey 2009, 46). SROs are granted the full weight of a police officer and can legally use force, arrest, and place kids in the criminal justice system. Their role as police creates concentrated forms of policing in public education and activists are challenging their position as one of the entry points of the school-to-prison pipeline and the mass incarceration system. Activists are calling for school districts to divest from these punitive structures by cutting and redirecting funds. Organizers are calling school districts to reinvest in holistic education and radically transform a framework that has given way to police-first approaches in schools.
This paper will delve into the connection between SROs and the criminal justice system and highlights school districts that have eliminated SROs. In many of these examples, modern-day organizers against the school-to-prison pipeline are an extension of the civil rights movement and Black Power organizers. This analysis situates the movement to eliminate SROs as an extension of the civil rights struggle and as a microcosm for the modern-day struggle for abolition. This paper looks at the case studies of Oakland and Los Angeles as successful examples from organizing to policy change. The paper focuses on Oakland and Los Angeles as case studies because their school districts have their own School Police Departments (they do not contract out), their histories of racial segregation—particularly given Black residential segregation—and the emergence of school police after the great migration on the West Coast.
Background and History of SROs
In the wake of a national reckoning on police violence and racial injustice, entire school districts (i.e., Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Seattle, West Contra Costa) have voted to eliminate SROs from their campuses, but this criminal justice fight has been going on for decades. There is a deep history of SROs, why they came to prominence, their scale, and how they are connected to the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminal justice system.
The Racialized Roots of School Resource Officers
SROs began in the mid-1950s as an attempt to foster relationships between local police and youth, but their origins are more racially explicit (Weiler and Cray 2011, 160). The first documented police in school program began in Flint, Michigan in 1958, placing a single plain-clothed police officer within a school whose function was to provide security, connect with parents, and prevent rising juvenile delinquency (Flint Board of Education 1968). However, some scholars emphasize it is no coincidence that the first school police program started at Bryant Community Junior High School—a public school located in a low-income, racially-integrated district—in Flint during the wake of school integration of Brown v Board and on the heels of the racial tensions of the civil rights movement (Noble 2017, 27). Racial tensions and juvenile delinquency was prevalent among Flint residents as housing and economic restrictions exacerbated racial inequality. School-police partnerships were devised to combat delinquency, a societal problem that White middle-class civic leaders often labeled Black and brown youth as the primary culprits (Noble 2017, 223; Chávez-García 2007, 467).
Advocacy groups, such as the Advancement Project and education scholar Kenneth Nobel at the National Education Association, assert that the school police program in Flint coincided with the perceived threat of juvenile delinquency, thereby suppressing youth-led social movements in the South—like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—just as Black families started to move north and school integration began (The Advancement Project and Alliance for Educational Justice 2020, 23).  The second documented SRO program came to Tucson, Arizona in 1966 in the aftermath of student-led Chicano freedom movements demanding culturally relevant curriculums in the Southwest (Noble 2017, 8; The Advancement Project and Alliance for Educational Justice 2020, 24). There are historical correlations between the emergence of police in schools as a response to youth-led civil rights efforts. By the 1970s, SROs were primarily in urban school districts across 40 states, and these early programs had armed police officers and the full legal powers that come with them.
Their initial roles involved a “triad model” to provide extra security for juvenile delinquency, serve as mentors, and sometimes even teach. SRO’s roles were to intervene at earlier stages of conflicts to prevent juvenile delinquency. Their initial description was also to serve as “counselors of law related issues” in helping guide children to appropriate community services. Finally, they served as instructors teaching safety-related programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (Black 2009, 30). Since SROs are trained police officers, very few have the training to fulfill their duties as counselors, teachers, and social welfare providers.
School Policing and the War on Drugs
Despite these shortcomings, SROs continued to grow in number during the “war on drugs” and into the 1990s “war on youth” against juvenile delinquency. The war on drugs, which began in 1971, was a series of draconian drug and criminalization laws that promoted mandatory sentencing, longer sentencing, no-knock warrants, and sentencing disparities, all of which led to the proliferation of incarceration for drug offenses from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997 (Alexander 2010, 77). President Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs has since been revealed as explicitly targeted policing of anti-war activists and Black people (Baum 2016). The rapid increase in policing communities of color during this era expanded into schools. Police, either as SROs or even posing as high school students, would conduct searches in schools to arrest students with drugs, often with minimal amounts of marijuana (ACLU 2017, 26-27). The war on drugs drastically normalized SROs' roles and presence in schools for policing and arrests.
The 1990s gave way to the biggest expansion of police officers, primarily due to newly allocated federal funds in response to the Columbine school shooting. Arguments for the increase of SROs in the 90s revolved around school shootings, but there is little to no evidence that SROs have made schools safer (McDaniel 2001, 4). The Congressional Research Service, in a 2011 report, concluded SROs help schools develop a written plan to deal with shootings, but claimed there has not been a single study indicating whether these actions reduce school violence (Raymond 2010, 7). Most studies that draw conclusions about SROs’ effectiveness present various methodological challenges that are either not quantitatively rigorous (relying on retrospective survey data) or generalizable (Raymond 2010, 7-9; James and McCallion 2013, 9; Na and Gottfredson 2013, 644). The criticism that SROs are meant to protect students from school shootings and violent crime continues to be a critique against the abolition of SROs, even though there continue to be no rigorous studies to prove this.
Similarly, according to a national survey from the National Institute of Justice, only 3.8 percent of responding schools (N=473) implemented SROs because of “school violence,” while the majority—23.5 percent—contracted SROs for reasons of “rowdiness and vandalism” (Lawrence F. Travis III and Julie Kiernan Coon 2005, 58). Despite a lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness, immediately after Columbine, the Justice Department’s “COPS in Schools” program awarded $750 million USD in grants to more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies and hired 6,500 new SROs between 1999 and 2005 (Raymond 2010, 1).
However, Columbine, a mass shooting at a predominantly White school, had dire consequences for youth of color. While armed SROs can be found in nearly 46 percent of schools and unarmed SROs are found at 61 percent of schools, there is a division in their concentration based on race and class across all grade levels, urbanicity, and enrollment size. Fifty one percent of high schools with more than 75 percent of Black and Latinx student enrollment had SROs, compared to 34 percent at predominantly White schools (National Center for Education Statistics 2018). Similarly, 10 of the nation’s largest school districts, which have high concentrations of Black and Latinx students, run their own school police force. For example, the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD) is its own entity even though officers graduate from the same LAPD police academy. With the rise of school shootings and zero-tolerance policies, the role of SROs accelerated the early stages of the system of mass incarceration.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline and Disproportionate Impacts on Students of Color
SROs channel youth into the school-to-prison pipeline in conjunction with an era of zero-tolerance policies. The school-to-prison pipeline is “the growing pattern of tracking students out of educational institutions and tracking them directly into the juvenile and adult criminal justice system” (Heitzeg 2009, 1). Similarly, zero-tolerance policies mandate that students who break certain school rules face penalties, including suspension and referral to law enforcement in which Black students are suspended or expelled three times more frequently than their White peers (U.S. Department of Education 2015–16, 13). The approach, which gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, gave harsh punishments for all kinds of infractions, from possession of a weapon to relatively harmless behavior such as drinking, smoking, and school fights (Price 2008, 545). Both of these policies predominantly affect youth of color (Skiba, Arredondo, and Williams 2014, 547).
When applying a gendered lens, other scholars have found that Black girls are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension compared to White girls of the same age, much of this stemming from the prevalence of “adultification” based on the bias and racialized perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their peers.
Given that school discipline is riddled with discretion, this burden disproportionately falls on students of color. The Department of Education found that Black students are 2.3 times more likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest compared to their White peers. When applying a gendered lens, other scholars have found that Black girls are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension compared to White girls of the same age, much of this stemming from the prevalence of “adultification” based on the bias and racialized perception of Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their peers (Chatelain via Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights). Other empirical studies are conclusive that an influx of law enforcement erodes the traditional disciplinary role of teachers and other school authorities (Pigott, Stearns, and Khey 2018, 122). However, the disproportionate power that teachers yield and their own biases contribute to inequalities in discipline rates, which need to be addressed but are beyond the scope of this paper (Okonofua and Eberhardt 2015, 617).
Policing is deeply embedded in the U.S. educational system and there are numerous examples where police presence leads to excessive use of force. In Florida in 2005, a school officer cuffed a young Black girl in kindergarten and kept her cuffed in the back seat of a police car for three hours. The girl’s first encounter with the criminal justice system was at five years old (Price 2008, 542) but, unfortunately, this situation is not unique. In Virginia in 2014, school police arrested, shackled, and put a four-year-old Black boy with ADHD into a squad car for causing a ruckus (Spencer 2014). In South Carolina in 2016, an SRO flipped a Black teen while she was at her desk and dragged her across the classroom for refusing to surrender her cellphone (The Associated Press 2016). These cases illustrate a story, but the disproportionate rate of arrests of Black youth is not anecdotal.
Today, SROs are street-level bureaucrats with an enormous amount of power and discretion to levy their referrals and make arrests. Thirty-six percent of those arrests are Black students despite Black students only making up 15 percent of the national student body (Justice Policy Institute 2020). Street-level bureaucrats—public employees distributing services—have discretion to determine access to government rights and benefits (Lipsky 1980, 3). Although de jure segregation like Jim Crow has ended, racism through exercised at the discretion of these street-level bureaucratic actors still creates racially disparate outcomes.
Black students are suspended or expelled three times more frequently than White students. And while Black children made up 15 percent of all enrolled students in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Education, they account for 31 percent of all in-school arrests—a 16 percentage point disparity. SROs have been used to police and surveil students of color and often for petty crime or completely normal behaviors. Students of color do not commit crimes at higher rates. These punitive policies can have long-term effects in which a higher suspension rate in schools means students are 15 to 20 percent more likely to be arrested and incarcerated as adults, and face disparate outcomes in employment, health, and housing (Bacher-Hicks, Billings and Deming 2019, 27).
The prominence of SROs and faulty policies to address the school-to-prison pipeline have continued to feed the myth of “cultural tailspin.” African-American studies scholar Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor questions why the idea of “defective Black culture” is so widespread when there is clear evidence that state-sanctioned racism and violence led to such inequality (Taylor 2016, 26-28). Solutions are limited in a world where the term superpredator became a norm and people viewed cultural deficiencies as the problem. From this perspective, mentorship and parenting programs become the default solution before falling back on discipline and policing. This cultural phenomenon permeates policies proposed by conservatives and liberals alike—placing the blame on youth of color and limiting real policy solutions to little more than mentorship programs. Federal programs such as My Brother’s Keeper that solely focus on mentorship without substantive policy change to deescalate police in schools and re-invest in holistic education continue to place the burden of change on youth of color. Taylor points out that these conventional wisdoms about juvenile crime and criminalization as a lack of discipline are a direct product of inequality. However, abolitionist activists see years of disinvestment and targeted inequality at the root of the issue. This is why activists call for policies to eliminate police from schools as a start to restoring power to youth of color, but do not call for more mentorship programs as the sole solution.
Given SROs’ discretion and the criminal and legal implications of their presence, the calls to eliminate SROs have long been a major component of local criminal justice reform efforts. SROs emerged into the structure of public education as early as the mid-1950s, and advocates have been criticizing their presence for decades. The NAACP North Carolina chapter asked Black residents to report school principals who frequently called the police on Black students as early as 1963. The ACLU filed one of its first cases against police in schools as early as 1966 in Tucson, challenging due process and investigating search tactics, invasion of privacy, and harassment claims (Noble 2017, 28). By 1973, the Black Panthers in Oakland, California were working to get rid of police in Oakland Schools. The Black Panther Party (BPP) condemned a city program that brought an additional $1.5 million USD to policing in Oakland schools (Rios 2020; Black Panther Party, Oakland 1973, 3).
All these efforts are far from mere relics of historical movements; they continue to be present in civil rights organizing today. The Black Lives Matter movement has given the abolition of SROs new relevance in policy spaces.
All these efforts are far from mere relics of historical movements; they continue to be present in civil rights organizing today. The Black Lives Matter movement has given the abolition of SROs new relevance in policy spaces. A shift that seemed stagnant has reemerged, with Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Seattle, and West Contra Costa all cutting ties with SROs or police departments within weeks of George Floyd’s murder and people-led uprisings (Seattle Public Schools 2020, 1; Harrington and Tadayon 2020). Similarly, New York, Phoenix, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to name a few, have continued efforts to remove police from campuses. The following analysis takes a look at what was at play in Oakland to remove SROs and the ongoing effort in Los Angeles. Oakland and Los Angeles were selected as case studies because of the similar makeups of their school police departments and shared histories of racial segregation on the West Coast.
Oakland and Eliminating SROs in 2020
In the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, school districts from Minneapolis to Denver to Portland to Oakland have all voted to terminate their police departments' contracts with SROs and eliminate police in schools (Leonard 2020; Balingit, Strauss, and Bellware 2020). These major changes in criminal justice policy at the K-12 level are monumental, but they did not happen overnight. In Oakland, grassroots coalitions organized for nearly one decade around the issue of eliminating SROs, until a window of opportunity finally opened in the summer of 2020.
Oakland, California serves as a case study for successfully eliminating SROs and explores what abolition means in education policy. In June 2020, the Board of Education for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) voted on the “George Floyd Resolution” to eliminate the Oakland School Police Department (Reilly 2020). For context, the OUSD was the only school district in Alameda County with its own police department (Byers and Criollo 2020). School police cost the OUSD $2.5 million USD per year. These funds will now be redirected to hire more counselors, social workers, and restorative justice coordinators. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice uprising, and local budget cuts, the need to address students’ wellbeing brought a decades-long demand to fruition.
Grassroots organizers, such as the Black Organizing Project (BOP), led the campaign to end school police in OUSD for nearly 10 years. BOP is a grassroots Oakland community-based organization that launched their Bettering Our Schools Campaign in 2011 in response to Barhin Bhatt—an Oakland school police officer—murdering Raheim Brown, a Black unarmed 20-year-old outside Skyline High School. Bhatt shot Brown seven times, was never convicted, and instead was promoted to interim school police chief just months after Brown's death (Rios 2020). Bhatt, who was on patrol for a school dance, is another example of the expansive use of police force in and around schools and its lethal consequences. Similar to the case of Flint, Oakland School Police was created in the late 1950s during school integration and the migration of Black Southerners into the city. The BPP made the connection between cops, segregation and schools back in the 1960s and 1970s and organizations like BOP continue that fight into 2020.
BOP draws heavily on building movements through base building and political education similar to the tradition of organizing in the Black Freedom struggle, but particularly from the legacies of the BPP in Oakland. Similar to BPP’s early political education in Oakland at Merritt College, BOP continues leading youth to think critically about topics like school pushout, criminalization of Black and brown youth, capitalism, and slavery. Their popular education models incorporate history, literature, and contemporary examples to develop self-actualized Black leaders (Black Organizing Project 2020).
The Black Power movement and the BPP in Oakland left lasting legacies among grassroots organizers in Oakland. There is a rich history of the Black Panthers organizing and protesting the formalization of SROs and police presence in Oakland public schools. In 1973, the Black Panthers protested a $1.5 million USD program that OUSD was considering called the Coordinated Interagency Action Program for the Reduction of Truancy, Vandalism, and Violence in Select Urban Schools. The program’s intention was to curb violence by keeping police records on students. The BPP strategically referred to the program as “CIA,” drawing parallels between the surveillance of students to militarized forms of surveillance.
The fight to build police-free schools in Oakland has continued through the civil rights movement into today. In 2011, after the murder of Raheim Brown, BOP began to call for an elimination of SROs from OUSD. This was a radical policy position compared to other advocacy groups who were still calling to address the harms from SROs through more training (The Advancement Project and Alliance for Educational Justice 2020, 34). However, BOP’s earliest strategies were to ask for a district-wide school police complaint system for students and parents as well as an oversight committee. According to their executive director, Jackie Byers, these reformist tactics were not because it would be a fix to the criminalization of Black and brown students, but because they wanted to force the district to report data back to the community (ibid, 35). Throughout the decade, BOP continued to organize, build political education, and create youth leaders to keep the movement alive until a policy window opened.
Oakland organizers were successful in getting the Board of Education to vote to eliminate SROs in 2020 because of the decade-long movement they had built.
Oakland organizers were successful in getting the Board of Education to vote to eliminate SROs in 2020 because of the decade-long movement they had built. The Board of Education unanimously approved the George Floyd Resolution to cut SROs on June 24, 2020. While national pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement forced the Board to meet, BOP played an active role in passing the resolution through coalition building with hundreds of teachers, educators, school district workers, and the Oakland Education Association. The demands to end anti-Black racism and coalitions of varying stakeholders created a situation in which school board members, some of whom had previously supported SROs, changed their stance. The resolution incorporated a formalized role for BOP and other grassroots community stakeholders to continue leading OUSD in developing a reimagined safety plan that centers students first.
Los Angeles as the Next Battleground to Eliminate SROs
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) could potentially mirror the success seen in Oakland. With a similar history in residential segregation, the emergence of school police alongside the influx of Black residents, and a rich landscape in organizing, Los Angeles presents some parallels with Oakland. LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country and employs its own school police force (U.S. Census Bureau 2017). Similar to the history mentioned between segregation and school police, Los Angeles also developed a nascent school police program in 1948 during the migration of Black southerners into the city, and a full school police department during the war on youth in the 1980s (LAUSD 2017). Today, a strong Black Lives Matter chapter, local grassroots groups, and political shifts could make Los Angeles the next site to eliminate SROs.
There is a rich fabric of organizers and community-based organizations working on education and criminal justice reform because of Los Angeles’ modern fight for racial justice. The 1990s set the landscape for a strong coalition of community-based organizations fighting to eliminate SROs. In 1996, Los Angeles was one of the first cities to receive federal funds from the COPS program to hire 29 new SROs. Ten years later, Los Angeles had built the largest juvenile probation system in the world and had 2,000 youth incarcerated by 2006 (California Sentencing Institute 2006). These increased arrests were not racially indiscriminate; between 2014 and 2016, the LASPD made 3,389 arrests and boys of color were 76 percent of all LASPD stops (Terry et al. 2018, 1). Coalitions and grassroots organizing continue to take shape to deal with the racial injustice from SROs and the school-to-prison pipeline in Los Angeles.
Coalitions organizing to eliminate LASPD include teachers’ unions, youth justice organizations, and racial justice organizations. The rich organizing infrastructure in Los Angeles allows for groups today such as the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) school union to amplify the demands to end police in schools. UTLA became a loud voice in 2019, leading a city-wide strike with 30,000 teachers. The teachers' strike was not divorced from the uprisings for racial justice. Their demands called for a reinvestment in education for smaller class sizes, increased wages, and, notably, more school counselors (Yan 2019). UTLA teachers' strike shows that a wide array of stakeholders have been calling for a movement to divest from punitive measures and invest in holistic educational practices. In the summer of 2020, UTLA stood with BLM-Los Angeles to end SROs, police in schools, and take money out of the LASPD and redirect it into mental health and academic counselors (Kohli 2020).
The confluence of these powerful, new, and longtime organizers has brought Los Angeles close to a tipping point to ending SROs. The pressure from the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, as well as a growing coalition to end police in schools, pressured the Los Angeles Board of Education to cut $25 million USD from LASPD (Howard et al. 2020). While $25 million USD was the largest budget cut in the Black Lives Matter movement from 2020, it is still only 25 percent of the $70 million USD school police budget. The budget cut means 65 officers out of 472 would be cut, 39 vacancies would be cut, and the Board added an amendment that neither LAPD nor county sheriff officers could replace these staff cuts. The Board has not outlined exact details about where the funds will go but has said they would support Black student achievement. However, despite the efforts from a strong coalition and a summer of protests, none of the Board members advocated to eliminate the LASPD entirely. The closest call was two Board members who advocated for a 50 percent cut to the budget (Blume, and Kolhi 2020).
Nonetheless, since that summer, Los Angeles has continued to adopt activists’ demands, including a county Measure J that prioritizes 10 percent of locally controlled revenue, about $1 billion USD, to be invested into local communities and alternatives to incarceration and requires a transparent process for how these dollars will be allocated (Re-Imagine LA 2020). Lastly, BLM-Los Angeles led one of the most successful local campaigns to vote out the city District Attorney Jackie Lacey in 2020. The newly elected George Gascon has already declared a sweeping set of reforms including ending the practice of trying juveniles as adults (Queally 2020). Despite the Board not eliminating LASPD, the city remains under pressure for radical transformation.
Los Angeles political leaders are under pressure to change the way the city has overly invested in its police force, and elected officials are listening to this growing pressure. For example, there was recently 13 hours of public comment and testimony before the school board, with many Black and Latinx students citing personal incidents of school police use of force (Howard et al. 2020). Given these other programs and cuts in funding to punitive systems, Los Angeles continues to be primed to eliminate LASPD. A multi-stakeholder coalition will need to remain strong to achieve the long-term goal for police-free schools. According to academic activist Alex Vitale, coalitions successful in eliminating SROs are the ones where parents are convinced and involved (Vitale 2020). The multi-stakeholder coalition in Los Angeles will need to continue involving parents. The Board must have the political will and organizers need to continue to apply pressure even beyond windows of policy opportunity. If this coalition succeeds in eliminating school police, it would be undoing the biggest school police force in the country.
Conclusion: Abolition and Defunding Budgets as Policy
Abolition of police from schools merits the seriousness of being considered a real policy, not just an idealistic vision. The Oakland case demonstrates the ongoing civil rights struggle to create more equitable schools by breaking away from carceral systems. The “George Floyd Resolution” in the Oakland School District dismantled the school district’s police department and aims to redirect the $2.5 million USD budget to hire more social workers, psychologists, and restorative justice practitioners. Similarly, the case in Los Angeles demonstrates the power of policy change through redirecting budgets into holistic services, cutting $25 million USD from the city's school police department. However, as cities create new policies that “re-imagine” safety, they must not simply redirect budgets from police departments into school districts with no substantive change to what those budgets will pay for. Similarly, new social workers and counselors hired as a result of these policies must also receive anti-racism training, as they too hold the power of the state to separate families.
Activists in Oakland and Los Angeles are fighting against what has been the predominant narrative to keep SROs. These critics against abolition of police in schools often question who will deal with a violent situation or a school shooting. However studies have not shown the effectiveness of SROs in reducing school shootings or violence, and most research around SROs is anecdotal and does not have external validity. Furthermore, SRO unions and police associations argue SROs are meant to serve as liaisons between youth, the community, and the police and serve as a diversion strategy from incarceration. The reality though is that, at their very worst, SROs’ mission was always about youth surveillance and, at the very least, they should never have been in an educator role in schools in the first place. As mentioned in earlier sections, despite their original mission, SROs’ presence did lead to the disproportionate incarceration of Black and brown youth and the school-to-prison pipeline. Lastly, some argue that divesting from school police and investing in holistic services is not possible because these budgets stem from different funding and tax sources, but the case studies from Oakland and Los Angeles demonstrate that adjusting budgetary decisions is possible in the effort to reimagine a better future for students. The following recommendations refute these critiques and center the demands that have reverberated across the country to divest from punitive systems and reinvest in restorative ones.
Policy Recommendations in Abolishing School Resource Officers
- Divesting budgets from school resource officers and school police and into holistic health and restorative practices.
In terms of budget allocation, defunding from SROs is only the first step in the movement to build better futures. School boards and city leadership must also support school climate and wellness, social workers, counselors, and professional development. In 2018, 26 states spent nearly $960 million USD on SROs yet national data also shows that about 60 percent of schools in 2018 did not have any mental health services. A main argument against abolishing school police is that school budgets are strapped. However, according to the research organization Child Trends, one full-time SRO can cost an estimated $75,000 to $97,000 USD annually, while a school psychologist averages $80,000 USD per year and a school nurse $69,500 USD (Fulks, Garcia, Harper 2020). Across California, 36 percent of students report having a school police officer while 30 percent report having a police officer but no school psychologist, nurse, social worker, nor school counselor. On average, throughout the state, there is only one nurse for every 1,481 students, 1 social worker for every 6,131, 1 counselor for every 681 students, but 1 school police officer for every 985 students (Whitaker et al. 2019, 17). Reshifting priorities into holistic health services and educational services and away from school police does not only cost less but also reinvests in supportive professions that are overloaded with cases.
- End punitive suspension and expulsion policies across school boards.
Further, cities and school districts should address the role of teachers, counselors, and social workers in eliminating biases given that they also wield discretion in calling the police on students. Even if police are eliminated, teachers still enact biases in wielding suspensions that create disproportionate outcomes along racial lines. The Civil Rights Data Collection under the U.S. Department of Education found that Black students lost, on average, 66 days of instruction due to suspension compared to just 14 days for White students, 17 days for Latinx students, and a high 44 days for students with disabilities (Losen and Whitaker 2019, 5). The uneven distribution of instructional time lost due to suspensions means school boards should readdress suspension policies and eliminate zero-tolerance policies, which go beyond just removing SROs.
- Fund Black and brown futures.
Reinvestment plans should also include diverse representation in curriculum and instruction that address social justice. In the process of defunding school police and redistributing the funds to other restorative services, school boards should make curriculum grants available for schools that have been disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline and work to bring innovative teaching into their schools. In addition to curriculum, funding Black and brown futures also comes in the forms of addressing students’ social-emotional needs, building community, and positively transforming school climate and culture. Early proposals coming out of LAUSD’s budget shift away from SROs and toward racial justice funding (LAUSD 2021).
- Incorporate grassroots leaders and advocacy groups into the policy implementation process.
Lastly, all across the country, grassroots activists, student activists, and advocacy groups have been central to the transformation of adopting abolitionist policies. Similar to the case in Oakland that included the Black Organizing Project in their resolution for policy implementation, other school boards adopting such measures should be bringing local advocacy groups into the policy process. Groups from Black Lives Matter and teachers’ labor unions to Black- and brown-led community organizations have a role to play as policies transform even beyond the initial process. Particularly in the case of Oakland, BOP is ensuring the school board does not simply replace its school police department with probation officers in schools or “rent-a-cop” part-time positions. These groups should continue to be engaged to keep localities accountable to their commitment to police-free schools.
The movement to get police out of schools is as old as the fight for school integration. SROs are so embedded in the educational system that some elected officials cannot fathom a learning environment without policing. However, activists are shaping the argument that SROs were never about safety but were established to monitor and criminalize juvenile delinquents—a construct that made Black youth criminals. Throughout their time, SROs have exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline in which they are 2.3 times more likely to refer Black students to law enforcement than their White peers. During the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests amplified the demand to create police-free schools. All in all, the elimination of SROs could be a microcosm for wider movement demands to end entire city police departments. The successful movements to abolish school police provide an avenue for greater society to reimagine public safety.
*This article was edited by Karlin Gatton (Princeton University), Lea Hunter (Princeton University) and Rebecca Gorin (Princeton University).
Wendy Gomez is a graduate student at Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs where she focuses on urban and social policy at the local level. She previously worked as a qualitative researcher at UCLA evaluating criminal justice reform policies and programs for the Mayor of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Department of Probation, and Department of Mental Health. She is committed to movement organizing and its power to bring about change. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter.
Wendy would like to thank her JPIA editing team and Professor Julian Zelizer for their encouragement and suggestions on this piece. Most importantly she stands in solidarity with organizers such as BOP, Youth Justice Coalition, LA Students Deserve and many more who are pushing us to reimagine police-free schools.
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