Our Schools Need More Counseling, Not Criminalization

By Steven Almazán

As a former student and special education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), I know that the presence of police officers on K12 campuses has done more harm than good for students from marginalized backgrounds. The counselors at my school had deep and meaningful relationships with all of my students; however, those same students would cower in fear when they saw school resource officers patrolling the school.

Research shows that Black and Latinx students are more likely than their White peers to attend schools with law enforcement (sometimes referred to as “school resource officers”) and be arrested, often for minor infractions. The discriminatory effect of school-based policing is reflective of the current toxic climate where Black, Native, and Latinx people are subject to arrest and police violence far more often than their White peers.

In schools, students should feel welcomed, loved, and respected by their teachers and peers and deserve a school environment that responds to their socio-emotional and physiological needs.

The civil rights community’s vision for the treatment of children is that schools make investments in evidence-based policies and practices that keep children and staff safe, support learning, and do not exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline, further criminalize marginalized children, or increase the over-policing of students in schools and communities.

The nation is at an inflection point with the role and presence of law enforcement agencies in marginalized communities as Black, Native, and Latinx people continue to be unjustly targeted by police officers. Youth advocates are and have been leading the way in K12 schools and on college campuses in cities like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Denver, Phoenix, Rochester, and Fort Collins. In some instances, justice-minded leaders are joining with them in the call for safe, inclusive, and healthy schools without law enforcement. National and state policymakers must follow this leadership and ensure Black, Native, and Latinx children and other historically marginalized students attend schools that include the supportive professionals that build positive learning environments and are free from school-based law enforcement.

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, there are 1.7 million students in schools with police but no counselors, 3 million students in schools with police but no school nurses, 6 million students in schools with police but no school psychologists, and 10 million students in schools with police but no social workers. As daunting as this sounds, youth leaders across the nation are demanding the removal of school resource officers and redirecting those dollars toward evidence-based supports and interventions that build positive school climates and support student learning.

Federal policymakers must appropriately respond to the needs and concerns of Black, Native, and Latinx students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, and other historically marginalized students — and those at the intersections of these identities — and divert federal funding away from police in schools and toward evidence-based practices and trauma-informed personnel that create positive learning environments.

Although the issue of discriminatory policing and criminalization has reached new prominence in the national consciousness, students, communities, and civil rights leaders have been naming the unfair treatment of children in the context of school discipline for decades. Last year the civil and human rights community came together to identify principles for safe, healthy, and inclusive school climates so that we could describe the learning conditions to which all children are entitled and the policies needed to ensure an inclusive education free from discrimination. We have recently uplifted that document, now signed by 295 organizations, in light of the current moment.

In addition to calling for positive supports for children, data collection to ensure equal opportunity, and other strategies needed to advance safe, healthy, and inclusive schools, our seventh principle explicitly calls for the elimination of school-based law enforcement:

Police, including school resource officers (SROs), do not belong in schools. Education legislation intended to improve school climate should expressly prohibit using federal funds on school police or surveillance and work towards the elimination of law enforcement and surveillance in schools. To the degree that law enforcement, including SROs and school security guards, remain in schools, any legislation proposed must require local education agencies to have written Memorandum of Understanding (or legal agreements) that define the role and responsibility of all law enforcement and school safety personnel and that also prohibit school police officers and similar school personnel, including volunteers, contractors, and affiliates, from enforcing student codes of conduct, engaging in a school discipline role, or managing student behavior that belongs in the hands of administrators; prohibit both police and school personnel from carrying weapons; and require school police to receive comprehensive and ongoing training on youth behavior, implicit bias, and student rights. All legislation should include oversight and penalties for local education agencies that fail to comply with its provisions.

Just as the civil and human rights community has taken its lead from children and communities, so too have some leaders in Congress. A bill recently introduced by Senator Chris Murphy and Representative Ayanna Pressley, the “Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act” (S. 4360/H.R. 7848), would divert federal funding away from school-based law enforcement and toward evidence-based and trauma informed services that create positive learning environments. The presence of school-based law enforcement has come at the expense of personnel and services that create safe, healthy, and inclusive school climates for too long.

As school leaders and teachers prepare to welcome students this fall either in person or remotely, they must create learning environments that are built on respect and safety for all students’ emotional and physical well-being. We cannot continue allowing the presence of school-based law enforcement to harm the health and well-being of children. Contact your members of Congress today and urge them to co-sponsor the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act.

Steven Almazán is the K12 Education Program Analyst at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.