by Cinthia Illan Vazquez
The unfortunate tragedy that resulted in the death of a student at Ingraham High School has once again sparked conversations around whether we need more police in schools in order to keep our students safe.
Imagine yourself back in high school. You are being a kid, doing things, like using curse words, being “too loud” in the school cafeteria, or even throwing a tantrum because of medical conditions. Instead of getting a warning or being pulled aside by your teacher, or even having your parents called, you instead are referred to the police officer in school who places zip ties on you, like what happened to 6-year-old Kaia. The use of force by police officers against students is far too common. Last year a school resource officer repeatedly slammed an 11-year-old boy at Vance County Middle School.
Students of color, particularly Black youth and youth with disabilities, are arrested at disproportionately higher rates than white youth. While school crime has been on the decline in recent years, arrest rates for all youth continue to increase.
Bringing police officers back into schools falls short of the real work that needs to happen to create environments in schools where every student feels safe and supported. What schools need is more mental health counselors and social workers, smaller classroom sizes, and restorative justice programs. These reforms will create environments where students are holistically supported throughout their education journey. Spending money on police won’t provide any of those things.
Indeed, the presence of police officers in schools is increasing, despite studies showing how ineffective school policing is. According to the ACLU of Washington in 2017, 84 of Washington’s 100 largest school districts have police officers assigned to schools. Nationally, in 1975, only 1% of schools were policed. That number has risen to 48% of schools being policed in 2021. This increase is costly. On average, Washington school districts pay $62,000 per full-time officer. Given that our schools are chronically underfunded, these funds could be used more effectively by spending them in ways that directly impact the students.
A promising alternative to increase student safety and support is implementing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs. These programs equip students with self-management and coping skills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 youth suffer mental, emotional, or behavioral problems and only 40% of schools provide mental health and social services. Our young people are going through incredibly hard times — global pandemic, isolation, national violence, climate change, etc. Students need more nurturing environments where they can be supported through these challenges.
Policy changes have been and will continue to be a matter of life and death. We don’t need another act of violence to show us that what we are doing is not working. Instead of putting more police in schools, we need our elected officials to fund and implement structural changes, so that all students can be in schools where they feel safe and supported because bringing more police in schools should not, and cannot, be an option.
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