Solving the ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

The Justice Department has seemingly found a solution to quiet naysayers. It has to do with school resource officers. Originally published in The Chicago Bureau.

Ordinarily, announcements of school funding awards by the United States Department of Justice are cause for celebration – or at least a mention in the news. Yet the department’s Sept. 27 decision to allot nearly $45 million to hire 356 new school resource officers nationwide was met with mixed reactions.

Some applauded the move as a response to mass school shootings, most notably the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn. in which 20 Sandy Hook Elementary students and six others were killed. Others condemned the Justice Department for investing in school resource officers, claiming that the presence of police officers in schools creates a school-to-prison pipeline.

As it turns out, the Justice Department has seemingly found a solution to quiet naysayers. It’s a solution so simple that it seems rather obvious: updating the job responsibilities of school resource officers.

The Historical Problem with Cops in Schools

Subscribers to the school-to-prison pipeline argue that in schools serving low-income neighborhoods, at-risk students are driven out of schools and into the criminal justice system as a result of public institutions’ zero-tolerance policies. It’s a phenomenon that arises, critics argue, from schools’ inability to address adolescents as individuals.

Nora Collins-Mandeville, a policy director at the Juvenile Justice Initiative, is a believer.

“There are kids who are systematically pushed out of school, said Collins-Mandeville, 31. “They have suspensions, out of school, or are expelled from school, or end up dropping out. Some of these normal adolescent behaviors – it can be an argument, it could even be a fight and sometimes it can be as silly as talking back to someone and it’s misconstrued – these are normal, typical adolescent behaviors and we’ve moved to allowing the system to address them rather than people.”

Collins-Mandeville says that law enforcement is often called in to deal with fights or other conflicts at school, and it’s typical of police officers to arrest first and ask questions later. It often follows that having police stationed on-site in the form of school resource officers would increase the numbers of youth funneled into the juvenile justice system.

Graphic by Project NIA

Graphic by Project NIA (Click to enlarge)

In fact, according to a national study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute, “When schools have law enforcement on site, students are more likely to get arrested by police instead of having discipline handled by school officials.”

The Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition aimed at challenging a systematic push-out of students from schools, agrees.

“Schools around the country have invested heavily in security measures such as metal detectors, armed police officers and school resource officers (SROs), often with devastating results for students,” read one statement. “They have increased the time students spend out of school and increased arrests and referrals to the justice system – especially for nonviolent student behavior like ‘disrespect’ – and further increased racial disparity in school exclusion and educational outcomes.”

Collins-Mandeville says it only takes one citation to ruin a student’s ability to lead a productive life outside the juvenile justice system. Some go even further, saying so-called white privilege dominates the decision so fundamentally that black students are sent into the ‘system’ to head off a poor life while whites are suspended or sent home because they already enjoy the benefits of the good life – no matter the real circumstances of the students’ situations.

“Once that kid touches a juvenile justice or criminal justice system, it’s really difficult,” she said. “They’re under this watchful eye and it’s shifted away from what’s best for this kid. We’re [JJI] very supportive of the juvenile justice system, but we think that the majority of the things that happen, dealing with this adolescent behavior, don’t need to be criminalized. They need to be addressed in a different way.”

The Triad Concept: Law Enforcement, Educator and Mentor

The Department of Justice acknowledges the adverse effects of instating law enforcement on school grounds. That’s why they’ve updated the job descriptions of school resource officers to focus less on discipline and more on mediation, protection and support.

“The Administration is acutely aware of the potential for unintended consequences associated with school resource officers and the concerns that poorly designed programs, improperly trained school resource officers and lack of clarity about the appropriate roles of school resource officers can lead to increased criminalization of students,” said Corey Ray, a spokesman for the Community Oriented Policing Services office at the Department of Justice.

“This,” he added, “has led to proactive planning by the Department of Justice, the Department of Education and other stakeholders to update the role of the school resource officer, identify key responsibilities for that position and develop a standard training program that will assist the officer’s work.”

That training will be a crucial part of ensuring the success of these new school resource officers, and Ray says the Department of Justice has developed the best widespread training models and partners possible: namely, collaborations with the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation – named for the victims of the mass shooting at that school – and the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“NASRO has been a firm believer in school resource officers taking a supportive role in assisting the students and the administration, not strictly on site to administer disciplinary action,” Ray said.

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, explains further:

“We train on a triad concept of law enforcement officer, mentor and educator. The number one goal for any school-based officer should be to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth,” Canady said.

Canady holds that properly trained school resource officers have always been effective in bridging that gap – and that it’s only poorly trained school resource officers who aim to arrest students.  Properly trained school resource officers don’t believe in the traditional zero-tolerance mindset, where any indiscretion deserves to be punished regardless of the severity of the behavior.

Instead, their goal is to integrate themselves into a school community and develop relationships with the students, giving them the ability to assess each situation differently depending on the individuals involved.

But what can be done about these problematic officers? Consider the notion that many have been working in an outdated “punishment” capacity. How will new training change long-standing zero-tolerance notions?

Graphic by Project NIA (Click to enlarge)

Graphic by Project NIA (Click to enlarge)

“The guys that are properly selected, properly trained, where the relationship between the school district and the law enforcement agency is in a proper context, their goal is to reduce arrests,” Canady said. “Part of their role is as a mentor, but they’re also involved in education. There’s a lot of prevention through education.”

Canady also points out that many arrests on school property are made in school districts that don’t employ school resource officers. School administrators instead call in outside law enforcement officials who don’t have the training to properly handle school-based situations.

“If an officer from the outside is called in by the school to deal with a disorderly conduct situation, for example, they’re calling that officer in to arrest that kid, whether they realize it or not,” Canady said. “That officer coming in from the outside probably doesn’t have a deep relationship with the school district or that campus. When you compare that to the officer who’s working on that campus and has a relationship with students and teachers, they’re very likely to handle that disorderly conduct in a very different way.”

Although Canady noted that most districts that send school resource officers to NASRO trainings are in rural areas of the country, he speculated that bigger urban centers may have their own training programs.

The recipients of this year’s Department of Justice funding are spread all across the country, including districts as large as Seattle, Charleston, Louisville and Des Moines. (For a full list click here.)

The City of Chicago did apply for Department of Justice funding this year, and received $1.8 million for 15 new positions. None of these new positions were awarded for school safety, however. Chicago Public Schools declined to release information regarding the number of school resources currently active and their current training methodology.

The exact details of Chicago’s funding awards are uncertain, but Ray speculates that “they likely went with homicide and violent crime reduction.”

Ray says the list of award recipients reflects federal requirements: half of the funds must go to agencies with populations under 150,000, while the other half must go to agencies with populations over 150,000. It also reflects areas that need help the most- so not necessarily the cities where the biggest news has been made about racially skewed arrest rates and suspension rates of elementary and high school students, such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

“Awards are made based on area crime rates and local economic conditions,” Ray said. “But we also look very closely at an agency’s problem area – school safety, gang violence, homicides, property crimes, etcetera – and their approach to addressing that problem. For this year, we gave a preference to agencies that asked for assistance with school safety. For those not on the list, we typically hold those applications as pending, and give them another shot next year.”


Cameron Albert-Deitch // The Chicago Bureau

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