After the Parkland school shooting on February 14, 2018, Florida enacted a law requiring an armed guard at every public and charter school. Whatever the arguments for having armed police officers in schools, my experience tells me that installing these officers in schools has an adverse effect on the future success of many students by adding unnecessary charges to their criminal records. Ultimately, this is the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline.
From the Parkland incident, we know that one officer cannot always prevent a tragedy of violence. School resource officer positions are often filled by applicants who are retired law enforcement officers, like Scot Peterson. How much superhero action can we expect from these aging officers when they are ambushed by a crazed school shooter? Are they criminals themselves if they don't save the day when the worst thing imaginable happens on their watch?
Even applicants that pass psychological background checks can turn out to be the types of people we should never trust with a firearm, nor are they people we would trust around our students. A Tampa Bay school police officer who was once named "officer of the year" shot himself after killing his wife, daughter, and granddaughter in December 2018. No armed person is immune from the mental health problems that plague nearly all perpetrators of gun violence.
Police with guns probably make most students feel more nervous than safe. The lion's share of the negative impact is doubtless felt by students of color. Countless studies, interviews, and articles report that these students are more afraid for their own safety after armed officers are installed in their schools. Some students report, rightly or wrongly, that they feel these officers are there more to police them than to protect them from a threat of violence. The type of "proactive policing" practices that law enforcement agencies have historically relied upon to prevent and reduce crime usually result in racially-biased police behaviors. And though the mass shooting incidents these officers were hired to prevent or stop have devastating impact when they do occur, they are in fact rare incidents. Most school police officers spend their time on other tasks.
It is no wonder students of color feel these officers are there to arrest them. In fact, in my experience, these officers frequently do just that. More children of color are arrested than white children. Sit in a juvenile court room for a morning docket and you will see the same.
There can be no doubt that having police in schools increases the number of juvenile arrests. We are shocked when children are arresting in schools whose wrists are too small for handcuffs. It seems we cannot assume common sense will be employed to avoid treating elementary school children like criminals in their classrooms when they misbehave.
Having these officers in the schools leads to police officers conducting interviews with students they treat as suspects. This interrogation has to some extent supplanted the role that school administrators once served just fine--speaking with students openly about what occurs on their campuses. Even children who merely witness a behavioral infraction of a fellow student find themselves being interrogated by school police about what they saw and heard. These children, who are truly innocent of any misbehavior themselves, feel targeted by the police officers. This leads to undue stress on students while they struggle to manage and master their already challenging educational curriculum.
School-based arrests range from marijuana possession or sale, to battery when school fights erupt, to robbery when one student steals another student's designer-brand sweatshirt or lunch money. Of course I see these cases when they have reached the stage of prosecution, but I cannot help but suspect that some of these problems could have been solved with the other disciplinary measures available to school administrators, or by collaborating with parents to address the root of a student's problem.
The officers were installed to make the schools safer, but is this increase in juvenile school-based arrests serving that purpose? It certainly makes schools less likely to handle infractions with detention or other types of discipline that keep these minor incidents between teachers, parents, and students.
Being arrested as a juvenile is not the slap on the wrist it maybe once was. A juvenile has to wait years to obtain a clean record after being arrested or charged, and sometimes they can't do it at all. Any charges that result in a finding of delinquency (the juvenile version of a criminal conviction) will haunt the child into adulthood.
They are labeled "bad apples" by prosecutors and police officers. This makes them more likely to be overly scrutinized for bad behavior in the future. They will "get away" with less of the childish behaviors all young people engage in, that often result in harm to no one. Police intervention isn't necessary to solve many of these issues. Yet many of these children will stop wanting to come to school at all. Or they may be removed from regular public schools and forced to attend charter schools with other juvenile delinquent students. They may succumb to a self-fulfilling prophecy: having been labeled "bad" children, they then become what society considers "bad" adults. They enter the school-to-prison pipeline.
Our current law enforcement culture is also fraught with aggression, violence, and much racism. When we install police in schools, we invite that culture into our children's lives. The message is that violence and firearms will provide safety and a chance to grow up protected. But for the most vulnerable of our children, it does just the opposite.