Putting Armed Guards in School is Wrong Answer

This post originally appered in the Wilmington News Journal.

With the nation newly stunned and grieving over the tragedy of Newtown, Conn., and amid social media-fueled rumors of safety threats, just before the holiday break last month police officers patrolled schools throughout Delaware. Reassuring students and parents that our schools are safe places for young people to be, no violence arose.

As one law-enforcement official told the press, having police stationed at schools instead of concentrating on where crime usually occurs was an ineffective use of their skills and resources. “Something like this pulls us away from other issues and duties,” Smyrna Police Department Lt. Norman E. Wood said. “Other complaints came in ... but we had to put them off because of where our officers were allocated instead.”

Despite similar concerns raised by law-enforcement officials nationwide, in the weeks following the Newtown shooting, there have been numerous calls for armed police officers in public schools. From factions as divergent as the National Rifle Association and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, the idea continues to be floated as a way to ensure school safety. Some school districts have already moved on it. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled today to give President Barack Obama policy recommendations on gun violence prevention, and there is speculation that increasing armed security at schools will be among his proposals.

Vice President Biden should not succumb to pressure for this well-intentioned, but misinformed, solution. The reality is that armed police officers are already present in many schools across the country – and this approach has caused significant problems. Far from making schools safer, increased police presence actually undermines school safety, erodes positive learning environments, and has long-term consequences that severely harm our young people.

We’ve been here before. Following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School – which had an armed guard on site during that tragedy – we saw a massive increase in school police forces. An estimated one-third of all sheriffs’ offices and almost half of all police departments assign sworn officers to serve in schools. This practice has taken hold predominately in schools in inner cities, where violence is far more likely to happen off of school grounds.

With the increase of police in schools, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in school-based student arrests, particularly of youth of color. Instead of addressing infrequent, serious threats to safety, police officers in schools often respond to minor student misbehavior by handcuffing, arresting and criminalizing the very young people they are intended to protect. The vast majority of school arrests nationwide are for discretionary offenses, such as disruption of a school function, disorderly conduct, and minor schoolyard fights. These are matters which could have, and should have, been handled by the school’s internal discipline system.

Last year, for example, a 6-year-old Georgia girl was arrested and handcuffed for having a temper tantrum in her kindergarten class. In Meridian, Miss., where the U.S. Department of Justice recently filed suit to curtail police involvement in schools, students routinely spent days in jail for minor infractions like violating the dress code or talking back to a teacher.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that of students arrested or referred to law enforcement, more than 70 percent are African American or Latino. The effects on these young people can be severe and long-lasting, as students arrested in school are significantly more likely to be held back, drop out and come into contact with the criminal justice system, instead of headed on the path to college or career.

The increased presence of school police and security forces has also drastically changed learning environments for all students, as their schools become less welcoming and more threatening. This sort of hostile climate has been shown to increase student anxiety and damage relationships between students, parents, teachers, administrators and law enforcement.

And as it was suggested here in Delaware last month, directing police resources to schools means that officers are spending more time as student disciplinarians, and less time ensuring the safety of the community. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, most youth victims of violent crime take place outside of school, with less than 2 percent of all youth homicides occurring in schools. Police must focus their efforts on preventing and responding to crime where it is occurring, not arresting children in school for food fights or having a temper tantrum.