Do police belong in America's schools?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

An 18-year-old woman in Long Beach, Calif., who was shot in the head by a school safety officer earlier this week, was taken off life support on Friday, according to a family attorney. Mona Rodriguez, the mother of a 5-month-old child, was allegedly involved in an altercation near a local high school on Monday that prompted the officer to intervene. As Rodriguez and two others attempted to leave the scene, the officer fired at least two shots into the back of the car they were riding in, video of the incident shows.

Rodriguez’s shooting has brought national attention to the ongoing debate over whether police officers belong in schools. Over the past few decades, school police officers — typically known as school resource officers (SROs) or school safety officers — have become an increasingly common presence on America’s elementary and high school campuses.

In 1975, only 1 percent of schools reported having officers on site. But a series of deadly mass shootings, starting with the Columbine massacre in 1999, and a broad “tough on crime” approach to policing have led more administrators to rely on armed law enforcement officers. By 2018, SROs were present in at least 58 percent of U.S. schools, including 72 percent of high schools.

There has been strong opposition to police in schools for years, but the movement to remove them has gained significant momentum in the wake of racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. In the 12 months following Floyd’s death, at least 33 school districts got rid of school police officers. Others — including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — have either reduced the budgets for SROs or moved to redefine their roles in schools.

Why there’s debate

Supporters for removing police from schools point to a growing body of research that suggests SROs do little to reduce on-campus violence, and their presence can take a significant toll on students. Research shows that schools with SROs can actually have higher rates of behavioral incidents and more student arrests and disciplinary cases. This impact is felt disproportionately by students of color, who are substantially more likely to be disciplined or arrested by SROs — a trend that criminal justice reform advocates say fuels the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Schools that have eliminated or reduced the role of SROs often invest the money they had been spending on law enforcement into other resources like counselors, psychologists, social workers and training for teachers. Reformers argue that these student support roles help address the root causes that lead to violence, whereas police can only respond after the fact.

Defenders of school resource officers say they are necessary to keep students safe, both from mass shootings and from more common acts of violence that plague many schools. While most say they support increasing the ranks of counselors and other support staff, they argue that can be accomplished while also keeping police on campus as protection.

What’s next

The name of the officer who shot Rodriguez has not yet been released. The Long Beach Police Department and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office say they are investigating the incident.


Police don’t actually make schools safer

“Police in schools are symbolic. They provide an easy answer to fears about violence, guns, and mass shootings. They allow policymakers to demonstrate their commitment to school safety. And for a time, they make teachers and parents ‘feel’ safe. But those who have studied school policing tell us this is a false sense of security. Schools with school resource officers are not necessarily any safer.” — Kristin Henning, Vox

Children deserve to attend crime-free schools

“Let's be creative in addressing non-violent offenses. No, let’s not involve law enforcement too soon when no one is under threat. But the simple fact is that some kids should face arrest. Some kids should have criminal records. In trying to protect these kids from themselves, school districts are making innocent students and teachers more vulnerable. That’s an unacceptable tradeoff.” — David French, National Review

School funding should go toward creating proven student support systems

“Every dollar spent on police, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras is a dollar that would be better invested in trained professionals that support, not criminalize children. Children deserve spaces where they can learn, thrive, and feel safe to just be. Until then, the fight continues.” — Judith Browne Dianis, Education Week

Improving support services doesn’t have to come at the expense of safety

“Retraining of safety officers is well and good, as is bulking up the ranks of guidance counselors, who are in much too short supply. But it’s folly to believe that happy talk and social supports are the only answer when some teenagers bring knives and guns and illegal narcotics and ill intent to schools. To protect children, someone should stand guard.” — Editorial, New York Daily News

School officers often turn normal childhood behavior into a criminal matter

“​​Allowing police officers to handle minor infractions in schools needlessly marks a student’s first contact with the criminal justice system, potentially setting them up for a lifetime of collateral consequences.” — Ryan King and Marc Schindler, Brookings

The presence of police makes students of color feel unwelcome in their own schools

“Officers, armed or not, are agents of authorized power with a legacy of violence. Where officers go, the message also goes that one had better watch their step. No child can learn when they do not feel safe, and no school police officer patrolling the halls denotes safety; rather, they denote a walking threat.” — Zachary Wright, Philadelphia Inquirer

School police are needed to prevent mass shootings

“How exactly can students fight for their lives against an armed and crazed gunman who enters their school midday and begins a shooting spree? More importantly, how does the school board believe students should defend themselves, when there is an option of having a paid, armed police force?” — Nicole Russell, Washington Examiner

School shootings are exceedingly rare occurrences

“I think we’re seeing that school leaders, policymakers and probably parents, to some extent, have sort of this outsized fear of gun violence in schools. … Even though we hear about gun violence in schools on nearly a weekly or monthly basis over the last few years, these are still very statistically rare events. But they have such emotional salience because they are so tragic that no school leader wants it to happen in their schools.” — Ben Fisher, criminology researcher, to NBC News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images