Like many people across the country, Kaila Caffey, a senior at Central High School in Philadelphia, nodded along to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students when they called for better firearms legislation. But to her, this moment is about something else, too. It “is also a call for divestment in police officers,” she says, “and an investment in counselors and mental health services.”
Since the February killing of 17 people in Parkland, some officials have responded to the massacre by advocating for more guns in schools. Florida governor Rick Scott called for mandatory police officers in all public high schools in the state. Scott Israel, sheriff of the county where the shooting took place, announced that he’d order all deputies to begin carrying rifles when on school grounds. But activists like the 17-year-old Caffey—who is a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth-led organization that advocates for student rights in Philly schools—have spent years working towards something entirely different.
“The ultimate goal is to have officers removed from schools completely,” Caffey says. “But if they’re going to be there, we want them to be doing their job, which is to protect students, not committing acts of violence against them.”
School resource officers, a popular term for police officers who work in schools, are employed through police stations or local sheriff’s offices. SROs can make arrests and are armed in some cases—they’re cops, but they work in schools instead of a neighborhood beat.
SROs have come under national scrutiny in light of the murders at Douglas. Though there was an armed police officer on duty at the high school, the officer was outside the school building and did not enter once the shooter went inside. The officer, deputy Scot Peterson, received criticism from his sheriff, Scott Israel, and has since resigned. President Trump called Peterson “a coward.” Yet in response to the Parkland shooting, the Florida House Appropriations Committee approved a bill last week that includes measures to ensure there is an officer in every Florida school.
Cops have been assigned to schools since the 1950s. The first recorded school resource officers visited Flint, MI, schools on a “part-time basis,” according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. However, school police officer programs didn’t become particularly common until the 1990s; the rise in SROs was in part a response to a perceived increase in school violence. The NASRO states that the goals of SRO programs include “providing safe learning environments in our nation’s schools.” But this vision doesn’t play out in reality.
Like cops outside of school, SROs serve a punitive function, and they disproportionately target marginalized students. According to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 31 percent of school-related arrests are of black students, even though they make up just 16 percent of the national student body. Various methods of research have not established higher rates of “bad behavior” among black students compared to their peers. The same Department of Education report also notes higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary actions for black and indigenous students, students with disabilities, and students who are learning English. There have also been multiple recent reports of SROs allegedly assaulting students.
For all of these reasons, some students say SROs are a risk to student safety, and they want cops out of their schools.
The Philadelphia Student Union’s cop-free school efforts began two years ago when a school officer at Benjamin Franklin High School put senior Brian Burney in a choke hold because Burney didn’t have a bathroom pass. Then in 2017, another SRO in Philadelphia was accused of assaulting a third grader. The father of the third grade student and activist Isaac Gardner Sr. told Philly News that in October of last year, school officer Joe O’Malley “dragged my son out of the classroom,” locked him in a bathroom, threw him against the wall and floor, and verbally assailed him.
The PSU organized rallies, press conferences, and meetings with district leadership in an attempt to secure more accountability over SROs while also advocating that police get out of schools altogether following both assaults. And yet SROs remain.
Concerns of police violence against students are particularly high in schools with high populations of students of color. In the Philadelphia public school system, some schools are nearly 100 percent kids of color, while others are predominantly white. As is the case with non-school cops, school police disproportionately target black and brown students.
This rallying cry to get cops out of schools can be heard elsewhere in the nation. Students and community members in Minnesota are working to get police out of their schools. Amir Sharif, who graduated from South High School in Minneapolis in 2017, told the Minneapolis school board last year that because of police killings of black men, police in schools make students of color anxious.
“Students have talked to me a lot about the traumatizing experiences they’ve had with seeing guns in the cafeteria when they’re eating their lunches or when a fight breaks out,” Sharif told the board in July, according to MPR. “And the first thing that they’re worrying about is if the police officer in our school is going to pull out a gun and shoot.”
Students in neighboring St. Paul have expressed the same concerns. St. Paul Public Schools’ SRO program came under fresh scrutiny in May after a white SRO officer was filmed pinning a black 16-year-old boy to the floor while the teen yelled for help at St. Paul Central High School. The teen was not a student at the school and was arrested for trespassing. Video of the rough arrest went viral on Facebook, and students at Central held a walkout to protest SROs. A junior at the school, Makkah Salaam, told her local paper, Pioneer Press, during the walkout that “We don’t feel safe in our schools,” and that the mistreatment of students of color by SROs is “an ongoing thing. It’s always been like this.”
Over the summer, both Minneapolis and St. Paul’s boards of education voted separately to decrease their numbers of SROs by two each, bringing Minneapolis’ total count to 14 and St. Paul’s to seven. But for some students, merely decreasing the number of SROs is not enough. Organizing with the Young Peoples Action Coalition, high schoolers and community members in Minneapolis used the occasion of the Super Bowl to protest the presence of police in their schools. On the afternoon of this year’s Super Bowl, dozens of students and community members marched to the home of Minneapolis school board chair Rebecca Gagnon demanding an end to the SRO program, which they want to see replaced with restorative justice measures.
Parallel efforts exist on college campuses, where campus officers have also proven to be a threat to students’ physical safety, inhibit free expression and protest on campus, and fail to properly address campus rape, an ongoing epidemic in American colleges.
In September last year, a campus officer shot and killed 21-year-old Scout Schultz, a student and president of the campus Pride Alliance at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In a protest that followed the fatal shooting, a cop car was set on fire—not a subtle statement. It’s rare for campus cops to fatally shoot students, but the death drove home how seemingly little police do to protect students from harm, while wasting precious funds.
When Servio Gomez, a recent graduate of Rhode Island College, helped found the Rhode Island Student Union Project (RISUP) back in 2013, one of its immediate goals was making sure university cops didn’t become armed. That year, the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education was considering arming campus officers, but left it up to each state school to decide.
Gomez says RISUP “saw this as an opening to push back against the attempt to arm campus police.” Since then, RISUP has advocated for the abolition of police at Rhode Island colleges, and has made efforts to shift the conversation about campus safety away from cops. For example, during a forum on campus safety after several women alleged they had been sexually assaulted by fraternity members, the group began “really pushing back against the drift that suggests that more and stronger police on campus are supposedly going to stop gender violence,” Gomez says.
As the debate over gun violence dominates the national conversation following the Parkland shooting, it appears that the militarization of public schools continues to be overlooked as an issue of student safety. Yet as the country follows the lead of Parkland teens into a new wave of debates about guns and safety, there’s room to scrutinize solutions, particularly those that disproportionately affect students of color. As years of data and student activism make clear, kids aren’t truly safe while cops remain in their schools.