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More Than a Few Rogue Cops: the Disturbing History of Police in Schools

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Another week, another video of police abuse surfaces. This time the video shows San Antonio school resource officer Joshua Kehm body-slamming 12-year-old Rhodes Middle School student Janissa Valdez. Valdez was talking with another student, trying to resolve a verbal conflict between the two, when Kehm entered and attacked her. “Janissa! Janissa, you okay?” a student asked before exclaiming, “She landed on her face!” In a statement on the incident, co-director of the Advancement Project Judith Browne Davis wrote, “Once again, a video captured by a student offers a sobering reminder that we cannot entrust school police officers to intervene in school disciplinary matters that are best suited for trained educators and counselors.”

This senseless attack on a student is immediately reminiscent of video taken by kids at a South Carolina high school in October. While classmates looked on, school resource officer (SRO) Ben Fields slammed a 16-year-old student to the ground and then dragged her by her hair across the floor after she refused to hand over her cellphone.

At times like this, media talking heads and editorial boards wring their hands over “bad apples” in the police department—both Kehm and Fields have since been fired. Yet, the problem of police violence goes deeper than just a few rogue cops. Deeply rooted institutional racism and sexism in the United States informs the behavior of the police. Recently, books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the growth of civil rights protest by groups like Black Lives Matter have highlighted the deep-seated racism in the American criminal justice system and how it targets people of color, but lesser known is how that same bias pervades the classroom.

A host of studies shows that black students are more likely to be disciplined while in school, a process of targeting that begins in preschool where black children make up nearly half of students suspended during the year while only comprising 18% of preschool enrollments. Throughout their school careers, black boys are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white counterparts. For black girls, the situation is even more extreme, as they are six times more likely to be suspended or expelled.

Once police are added to the equation, the racial disparities of the American criminal justice system are brought inside the school. The fact that schools already disproportionately discipline non-white students translates into school resource officers that are more likely to refer students to the juvenile justice system. This racist disciplining creates and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

Some will say that, for all their faults, SROs are needed to protect students from violence on campus—the image of Columbine is always invoked around discussions of police in school. But Columbine employed an SRO at the time of the shooting. In fact, while the shooting was going on at Columbine, 800 police officers and eight SWAT teams surrounded the school. Yet, all refused to confront the shooters, preferring to “contain the perimeter.” The truth is having police on campus does not curb violence.

The origin of school resource officers lies not in school shootings, but in the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. California launched the modern trend of bringing police into schools in 1968. Early police-in-school programs targeted middle schools (LA Times, 11/5/1968). Parents were assured the programs were “purely educational” and their intention was “not to effect a policing plan” (LA Times, 4/23/1969). “In no way,” Arden Daniels, a Glendale school principal, emphasized in 1970, “does he [their SRO] participate as a disciplinarian, a responsibility of the principal and other administrators.” (LA Times, 1/11/1970)

The purpose of these early programs was to “develop a closer rapport between students and law enforcement officers and to create a greater respect for law and order” (LA Times, 11/5/1968). At this time, students watched police on the nightly news attack civil rights marchers with vicious dogs and batons. A hit squad made up of Chicago police officers made national news when they assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in his bed while he slept in 1969—one year after the same department savagely beat anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Shortly after Hampton’s assassination a force of hundreds of LAPD officers and SWAT raided the Black Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, exchanging over 5,000 rounds of ammunition with the besieged civil rights organization. Respect for the police was at an all-time low. The aim of putting police in schools was to indoctrinate kids while they are young and to change their perspective on law enforcement. But once police were in the schools, mission creep followed.

Police also served as the enforcement arm of school desegregation programs. However, their tactics—mirroring those used on the streets outside of school—frequently targeted the black students they were supposed to protect. Case in point: when a white student killed a black student at Lubbock’s Dunbar High School in 1971, police shut down the traditionally black school and surrounded the black Eastside, patrolling it with a tank.

White resistance to school busing in Boston led to the first introduction of metal detectors in public schools, further fusing the education and incarceration model. After a brief removal, white parents and students boycotted South Boston High School in 1980 demanding that black students be checked at the door of the school with “airport-style” metal detectors (NY Times, 10/8/1980). School Headmaster Jerome Winegar refused to reinstall the metal detectors, flatly stating, “We are not running a concentration camp here” (NY Times, 10/7/1980). Yet the call for merging schools and prisons would prove irresistible, and in 1993 South Boston High—along with many other schools across the country—doubled the number of security officers and approved searches with hand-held metal detectors. South Boston City Councilman James Kelly fought for the change saying that white residents and students lived in fear of black youth, “a good portion of whom act like a bunch of terrorists.”

Changes in Boston mirrored those happening throughout the country in the 1980s. The War on Drugs targeted black and brown people incarcerating them in record numbers. As a result black and brown youth were demonized in the public mind. “Kids are coming to school with Uzis!” Oprah Winfrey told her audience in 1988 as she stood in the gym of Southwestern High School in Baltimore, “Kids are hiding guns in their underwear! Knives in their socks!” Flanked by police and security guards, Oprah would not even enter the school until metal detectors were installed. Reviewing the 1989 exploitation flick, Class of 1999, in which student gangs engage in open warfare at Seattle high schools until Terminator-style cyborg teachers arrive on the scene to restore order, LA Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas described this absurd scenario as “uncomfortably close to the possible.”

In this environment, the job of SROs expanded to discipline enforcement within the school. Truancy raids like the 1982 bust in Miami that rounded up 250 high school students at a local park became common as SROs and local police intensified cooperation. “It was like bringing cattle in,” according to school resource officer Barney Silver, “We pretty much rounded them up.” (Miami Herald, 10/22/1982)

Talking to the LA Times in 1992, Paul Walters, police chief for Santa Ana, CA, outlined the expanded role of the school resource officer, “a special relationship is created between the department, the school administration and the students. Officers help the school in identifying potential problems on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods.” As we all know, teenagers have always had problems. In the past those disciplinary issues had largely been considered the domain of parents and school faculty—a boundary that police initially respected. Now, school resource officers represented the bridge between schools and the criminal justice system.

The anti-gang hysteria whipped up by politicians and the press in the 1990s led to the further expansion of the role of police in schools. Hollywood turned inner-city schools with majority-minority student populations into dystopian battlegrounds in films like Only the Strong (1993), Dangerous Minds (1995), The Substitute (1996), and 187 (1997). Talk of “super-predators” and “kids without a conscience” drove a bipartisan wave of legislation that sought to “bring them to heel” by aggressively criminalizing black and brown youth. Mandatory minimum sentences were toughened while the barriers for trying children as adults were relaxed—dropped to 14 in most states. Despite (or perhaps because of) the disastrous effects of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act on poor and minority communities, its primary authors and promoters (the Clintons and Joe Biden) remain the leading voices of the Democratic Party.

Not as well known, but no less problematic, was the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994. Initially designed to create a zero tolerance policy for students caught with a firearm, it quickly crept into every aspect of school discipline. Law professor Jason Nance notes that schools began to “appl[y] zero tolerance to a multitude of offenses, including possession of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; fighting; dress-code violations; truancy; and tardiness [emphasis added].” Nance concludes that the presence of SROs “leads school officials to redefine lower-level offenses as criminal justice issues rather than as social or psychological issues… In other words, SRO programs appear to facilitate a criminal justice orientation to how school officials respond to offenses that were once handled internally.”

It is important to consider the effect that this level of police control has on students. SRO programs socialize students for an over-policed world, normalizing it. Sociologists Aaron Kupchik and Torin Monahan describe the effect of these programs in a 2006 paper, “Police interact with students on a daily basis, cultivate informants, spread an ambiance of control and streamline the formal disciplinary process to efficiently usher students into the criminal justice system.” In the name of the War on Drugs, the punitive gaze of police was extended to every student in schools where SROs operated. In Kansas City high schools, signs at the entrance of the student parking lot alerted commuters that merely parking implied consent to vehicle searches “with or without cause.” Unannounced, suspicionless locker searches along with the use of drug-sniffing dogs became staples of school anti-drug programs. The use of undercover police officers in high schools leapt from the television screen to reality in many cities. One such officer in Atlanta explained his job to a local journalist, “I knew I had to fit in, make the kids trust me and then turn around and take them to jail” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3/7/2001) The article does not say whether the officer ever considered the negative effect his operation might have had on social ties within the student community.

It is no coincidence that schools adopted this more punitive approach to student discipline at the exact same time that white students and parents began fleeing the public school system. Efforts at desegregating schools in Boston led to white families fleeing to the suburbs or to private schools. In the South, “segregation academies,” religious private schools designed to maintain school segregation, continue to flourish long after school busing has faded from the scene. In Philadelphia, white flight from public schools left one teacher asking, “Where have all the white kids gone?” The Harvard Civil Rights Project notes that the trend toward desegregation in schools reversed itself in 1988 leaving many schools more racially segregated today than they were in 1968. As a result, last year, for the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of kids in public school were non-white.

The changing demographics of American public schools has several implications. First, because of the deep and historical connection between race and class in the United States, news of the racial demographic swing in public schools was followed quickly by news that the majority of public school students are poor. As one would expect, defunding of the public school system soon followed. It is a disturbing trend in the United States that once a public institution becomes associated in the public mind with poor people and, most importantly, black people, support for maintaining that institution begins to wane. Welfare was eviscerated with the aid of a concerted campaign to associate the program with poor black mothers in the eyes of the public. Similarly, public education is increasingly associated with the urban poor, driving up support for private school voucher programs and charter school “alternatives” that drain vital resources from public schools.

Finally, the demographic change in public schools makes it easier to shift from an education model in schools to a carceral model—and to accept the violence that comes with it. Schools with SROs that encourage a zero tolerance disciplinary model increase the level of interaction between students of color and police. Sadly, this leads to predictably disastrous results.

Videos of the attacks in San Antonio and South Carolina went viral and led to appropriate outrage. Yet, most police attacks on students go relatively unnoticed. How many people know about the video of a school resource officer in Round Rock, Texas who choked and then threw a 14 year old boy to the ground? The officer was cleared of any wrong doing despite the video evidence. Who remembers the Omaha school resource officer who was caught on tape repeatedly punching a student in the face after breaking up a fight? Or the surveillance footage from a Florida middle school that shows a police officer shove and throw a 13 year old student to the ground while fellow students and administrators watch passively—apparently just another day at school? Or the Kentucky SRO that “allegedly” punched a 13 year old student in the face for cutting the lunch line only to choke another student until he lost consciousness five days later?

Few recall that a little over five years ago, San Antonio was the home to another tragedy involving a school resource officer. As school let out on November 12, 2010, Derek Lopez, a 14 year old student at the Bexar County Juvenile Justice Academy—an alternative school for students that have been expelled from their regular school, approached a 13 year old classmate at the bus stop striking him once in the face with the back of his hand. The student would later state, “He just hit me once. It wasn’t a fight. It was nothing.” Northside Independent School District SRO, Daniel Alvarado, witnessed the incident from his car and demanded Lopez freeze. Lopez ran and Alvarado chased after him in his squad car falsely telling a dispatcher that he had seen “an assault in progress. He punched the guy several times.”

After initially losing Lopez in a nearby neighborhood, Alvarado was told by his supervisor to “stay with the victim.” The SRO immediately disobeyed the order, setting off in his car to continue searching for Lopez. This was nothing new for Alvarado, who had a long history of insubordination that had led to four suspensions and warnings of impending termination. A homeowner called the police after seeing Lopez climb over her fence and go into her shed. Alvarado arrived shortly after hearing the call go out on the radio. According to the homeowner, he charged into her backyard with his pistol drawn. Forty-five seconds later a single gunshot rang out, and Derek Lopez was dead.

“The suspect bull rushed his way out of the shed and lunged right at me,” Alvarado would later explain, “The suspect was literally inches away from me, and I feared for my safety,” An autopsy later revealed that Alvarado was lying. He claimed that he immediately provided CPR, but the homeowner reported that the SRO carried Lopez’s body from the shed and dumped it on the grass. She, and a paramedic who lived next door, were the ones who tried to resuscitate the child while Alvarado watched “a little dazed and distant.”

The death of Derek Lopez—or another student like him—was inevitable. As inevitable as the city’s refusal to charge Daniel Alvarado for murdering Lopez. As inevitable as the $925,000 settlement that Lopez’s mother would reach with Northside Independent School District in exchange for dropping her wrongful death lawsuit. Armed police in the streets regularly injure, maim, and kill. When those same police bring their guns into the classroom it is only a matter of time before someone gets killed.

As a society, we have come to accept the presence of school resource officers in public schools with all that their presence entails. It is seemingly inescapable that this merging of schools with the criminal justice system is the part of the process of the re-segregation of American schooling. As wealthy parents flee the public school system they are all too happy to see the police take in their wake. In short, the SRO program is simply an extension of Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow.” In this light, the assault on Janissa Valdez can only be seen as the natural outcome of the new carceral school system. As such, communities affected by this police violence need to eschew simple answers, like terminating bad apples. We must dig deeper into the root of the problem. We need to demand the removal of all police officers from public schools. Instead of police and metal detectors we must increase public investment in education that is, and has been, lacking for so many students.

Mary Anne Henderson is an historian and high school teacher in Seattle. Brian Platt is an aerospace machinist who lives in Seattle. They can be reached at hendersonandplatt@gmail.com

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