Inconsistent school policing policies feeding students into criminal justice system

ACLU Paper Highlights Need to Both Ensure School Safety and Respect Students' Rights

August 28, 2009

Amy Reichbach, Equal Justice Works Fellow, 617-482-3170 x344,

Christopher Ott, Communications Director, 617-482-3170 x322,

Will Matthews, 212-549-2582 or 2666;

BOSTON -- Allowing police officers to patrol school campuses without specific guidelines outlining their roles and responsibilities can create an adversarial environment that unnecessarily pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system, according to a new white paper by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The white paper aims to ensure that police officers deployed to schools are given the tools necessary for maintaining safe school environments while respecting the rights of students and the overall school climate. It provides specific recommendations for designing policies governing the use of police in schools.

"It is essential that the work of police on school campuses be guided by formal standards and policies," said Catherine Y. Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program and one of the principal authors of the white paper. "As the number of police officers on school campuses across the country continues to grow, there is a real risk that, without concrete guidelines, student behavior will be unnecessarily criminalized and school environments will become increasingly toxic."

"We know that early exposure to the criminal justice system tends to lay the groundwork for further contact with the criminal justice system," said Amy Reichbach, Equal justice Works Fellow at the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Both for the sake of children and controlling the cost of the criminal justice system, youth should not be funneled out of school and into court unless all other alternatives have been exhausted."

The white paper identifies six key areas that any policy governing the use of police in schools should address, including distinguishing between disciplinary misconduct to be handled by school officials and criminal offenses to be handled by law enforcement, and promoting non-punitive approaches to student behavior.

According to the ACLU's white paper, the number of children arrested or referred to court for minor disciplinary infractions is on the rise. This national trend is reflected in local communities. In Boston, the most common offense resulting in arrest for the three school years beginning in September 2005 and ending in June 2008 was "disorderly conduct." Thirty percent of school-based arrests that occurred in Worcester during the same time period were for "disturbing school assembly." During the 2007-2008 school year, Worcester students were charged 50 times with "disturbing school assembly," "disorderly conduct," or both.

Children of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately represented among those students arrested or referred to court, exacerbating the disturbing national trend known as the "school-to-prison-pipeline" wherein children are over-aggressively pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Data obtained from the Worcester Police Department reveals that during the time period from September 1, 2005 to June 30, 2008, Hispanics and African-Americans were overrepresented among students arrested. One hundred twenty of a total 260 arrests in the public schools were of Hispanic students. Many of these arrests involved multiple charges; Hispanic students received 218 of the 461 charges filed during this time period. During these three years, the Hispanic student population in Worcester ranged from 33 to 36 percent, yet 46 percent of arrests were of Hispanic students and 47 percent of charges filed were against Hispanic students.

During the same three years, African-American students were arrested 101 times and received 123 charges out of a total of 260 arrests and 461 charges. Although African-Americans comprised only 12 to 13 percent of Worcester's student population during this period, 39 percent of arrests were of African-American students and 27 percent of the charges filed were against African-American students.

"There are serious problems with relying too heavily on police to maintain order and to provide discipline without ensuring that police understand exactly how they fit within the overarching educational framework of schools," said Kim. "When arresting kids for misbehaving becomes the primary mode of discipline, some of our most vulnerable populations end up being unnecessarily criminalized at very young ages before alternatives are exhausted that could lead to academic success."

The white paper also advocates that any governing policy ensure that police on school campuses be given minimum training requirements, that the role of police within the context of the educational mission of the school be explicitly defined, that police operate in a manner that is transparent and accountable, and that police respect the rights of children in school.

Although no available figures document the current number of police officers patrolling school campuses in the U.S., it is clear that schools across the country have begun to deploy police on school grounds in growing numbers. In 2004, for example, studies show that 60 percent of high school teachers reported armed police officers stationed at their schools, and in 2005 nearly 70 percent of public school students between the ages of 12 and 18 said police officers or security guards patrol their hallways.

Frequently referred to as "School Resource Officers" or SROs, the police on school campuses are often sworn police officers employed by local police departments and assigned to patrol public school hallways full time.

A copy of the ACLU's white paper is available here.

Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is also available online.

Additional information about the school-to-prison-pipeline is available here.

The "Locking Up Our Children" report is available here.