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New report: School police officers need better training so girls of color feel safe

A report released this morning examines the rise of school-based police officers, their latitude in deciding whether to send students to the principal's office or juvenile court and the consequences to girls of color.

Today, police officers -- known as school resource officers or SROs --  are common in public schools. Nationwide, there are more than 19,000 officers in schools, up from about 100 in the 1970s, according to the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute new report, which notes, "Although the purpose of these officers is to maintain safety and address criminal acts, an important unintended consequence is greater arrest rates and referrals in schools who retain them, with especially harsh results for girls of color. "

The  report, “Be Her Resource: A Toolkit about School Resource Officers and Girls of Color,” builds on a report earlier this year from Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality that found black girls are regarded as older and less innocent than white counterparts, a bias that particularly affects girls between the ages of 5 and 14. Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, suggested this “adultification” contributed to the disparate discipline of black girls in schools and their harsher treatment in the juvenile justice system.

The new report provides a blueprint for schools to better train officers after many of the officers interviewed cited a lack of guidance.

Yet officers described a lack of clarity about the limitations on their role, and demonstrated that they have not received sufficient training to implement culturally competent and gender-responsive approaches to girls of color. This gap presents a unique opportunity for SROs and girls of color to collaboratively create a definition of safety in schools through effective and respectful communication,

trauma-informed and healing-centered responses, and punitive roles limited strictly to criminal law enforcement.

Among the recommendations:

  • Clearly delineate law enforcement roles and responsibilities in formal agreements.
  • Collect and review data that can be disaggregated by race and gender.
  • Implement non-punitive, trauma-informed responses to girls of color.
  • Offer specialized training to officers and educators on race and gender issues and children’s mental health.

In their interviews with researchers, girls said the SROs urged them to be “ladylike” and "respectable" or to "present themselves in schools in traditionally defined professional and non-confrontational ways." While many people on this blog will counter there's nothing wrong with fostering ladylike behavior, the question is whether the point is to encourage manners or subservience.

Girls of color told researchers they see bias in the responses of officers. One participant related this anecdote:

I got into an altercation with this Caucasian girl … The police officer came in there and tried to talk to me and tried to talk to her. …But like, he asked me, ‘[W]hat did you say to her?’

“Why did it have to be ‘what did I say to her?’ Why couldn’t it be, ‘Who started it first?’ or ‘What’s going on? What happened?’ …

Some states including Georgia have made it a crime to disrupt school, giving SROs the ability now to escalate student misbehaviour from school principals to criminal courts. (Interesting footnote: Disrupting school was first criminalized in the late 1960s in response to high-school and college civil rights demonstrations.) But, as earlier research has documented, many discipline decisions are subjective, based on such offenses as “willful defiance.”

The report notes:

Under these laws, SROs have charged children for behavior such as wearing too much perfume. “Disturbing-school” laws gained national notoriety in 205, when a sheriff’s deputy flipped the desk of a girl of color while she was still sitting at it and dragged her across the floor because she refused to leave class.  The girl was charged with disturbing school, and statistics indicate that she was more likely than not to end up in the court system: experts estimate that about 55 percent of cases like hers ended up in juvenile court in South Carolina, where 29,000 disturbing-school referrals were made to the state Department of Juvenile Justice between 2001-2016.

While not all charges result in convictions, many do: children have been convicted and sentenced for behavior identified by SROs that include hitting another student or engaging in a prank involving foul scented spray. In addition to the factor of subjective determinations, SROs’ enforcement actions can also result in students’ deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system by means of escalation. For example, if conflict ensues in the course of an SRO’s enforcement of a minor disciplinary violation, that student may be arrested for disorderly conduct. As a result of these and other factors, schools with SROs report higher rates of student contact with the juvenile justice system — particularly for low-level offenses — than schools without SROs.  In total, according to the U.S. Department of Education, educators arrested approximately 20,591 girls during the 2013-2014 school year.

While these statistics are startling, Black girls face particularly serious disparities. For example, Black girls are more than 2.6 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement as white girls, and almost four times as likely to be arrested.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.