How the Number of Police Officers in Schools Skyrocketed


Wednesday, July 28, 2021 - 7:10am

School resource officers appear in all 50 states. They are visible in both urban meccas and small towns. In 1975, only one percent of U.S. schools reported having police stationed on campus, writes Kristin Henning in an excerpt of her book "The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth published in Vox. By the 2017–18 school year, 36 percent of elementary schools, 67.6 percent of middle schools, and 72 percent of high schools reported having sworn officers on campus routinely carrying a firearm. In raw numbers, there were 9,400 school resource officers in 1997. By 2016, there were at least 27,000. Because police operate under many different titles in schools, these numbers are low. Tallies often miss private security guards and neighborhood officers assigned by the local police department to patrol several schools without any formal agreement with the school district. What happened to cause such a shift in school culture in 35 years? 

Teachers in Flint, Mi., planted the seed for a law enforcement presence in schools during a 1953 workshop, when they expressed concerns about growing enrollments and the potentially negative impacts of overcrowding, including delinquency. Flint educators, police, and civic leaders collaborated in 1958 to implement the nation’s first Police-School Liaison Program and developed the framework for school resource officers as we know them today. Schools across the U.S. followed Flint’s lead. State and local governments sent police into schools under the pretense of protecting Black youth. The real motives likely had more to do with white fear, privilege, and resentment. The partners in Flint hoped to foster a positive relationship between youth and police, prevent youth crime, and provide counseling services for students believed to be at risk of delinquency. As police became more entrenched in schools, students, parents, and civil rights advocates complained that police officers weren’t trained to be counselors and worried about the potential for conflicts of interest when police tried to serve multiple functions. Civil rights groups worried that police were violating students’ rights through unsupervised interrogations, harassment, and surveillance. In a 2018 survey, 25 percent of school police indicated that they had no experience with youth before working in schools. Sixty-three percent reported they had never been trained on the teen brain; 61 percent had never been trained on child trauma; and 46 percent had never been trained to work with special education students. 

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