There appears to be little appetite for arming teachers: It’s impractical, expensive and politically toxic. Yet considering the NRA’s stranglehold on the federal government and state legislatures, the pressure to do something to address mass school shootings is likely to default to a debate about increasing the presence of police in schools, or alternately, bringing in private security or armed volunteers.
After the Guilford County School Board pulled a resolution that would have expressed opposition to arming teachers on March 6, board member Pat Tillman said he wants the board to consider amending the it to include more funding for police in schools, known by the more genial-sounding euphemism “school resource officers.”
Meanwhile, in Stanly County, the school board approved a measure to allow the sheriff to use armed volunteers to protect schools. Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page is interested in implementing a similar program.
The evidence is muddled as to whether putting more cops in schools makes them safer, but it’s clear that additional law enforcement contact increases the likelihood that students, particularly those who are black and brown, will be funneled into the criminal justice system, with grave, potentially life-altering consequences.
In the case of Stanly County’s novel experiment, school shootings are likely to be a relatively isolated phenomenon, and it’s easy to imagine that the mission of the armed volunteers will creep beyond external threats to become an auxiliary force to handle school discipline. Citizen volunteers are likely to have even less awareness of inherent bias than their professional law enforcement counterparts, and racial profiling against students of color can only be expected to become more extreme.
Racial disparities in school discipline have been widely acknowledged for the past two decades, going back at least to 1998, when a US Department of Education study found that black and Latinx students are suspended from schools at disproportionate rates. It’s not at all surprising that when police, with the authority to file the juvenile equivalent of criminal charges, maintain a presence in schools, students of color bear the brunt of enforcement action. And a Triad City Beat review of school-based juvenile complaints data from the NC Department of Public Safety last year found exactly that: In school systems across the state, large and small, black students were seven times more likely to be referred into the juvenile justice system as their white counterparts.
The school boards in Guilford and Forsyth and the community at large haven’t seriously wrestled with this scandalous fact, and until they do it’s irresponsible to discuss putting even more police in schools.
Not surprisingly, the advent of the school-to-prison pipeline largely tracks with the era of mass incarceration. As noted in the 2011 Justice Policy Institute report Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools, the adoption of the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which required schools receiving federal funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to impose a 1-year suspension on any student caught bringing a gun to school, “created the perceived need to have law enforcement readily available.”
Spectacular school shootings later in the decade — a largely suburban and rural (read: “white”) phenomenon — accelerated the securitization of schools.
“During the late 1990s, a series of highly publicized incidents of school violence paved the way for more sweeping zero-tolerance policies that spread quickly,” the Justice Policy Institute recounted. “By the time two students shot and killed 13 people in Littleton, Colo., President Clinton had already called for more police officers in schools.”
Evidence of police deterring school shooters is largely anecdotal. On one hand, there’s the spectacular failure of Broward County Sheriff Deputy Scot Peterson, who stood outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as the carnage unfolded inside. As a counterpoint in heroism, Deputy Carolyn Gudger held an armed gunman at bay for 10 minutes until backup arrived after pushing the principal out of the way at Sullivan Central High School in Blountville, Tenn. in 2010.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, a report by the Congressional Resource Service cited studies indicating that schools with assigned police officers “can deter students from committing assaults on campus as well as bringing weapons to school,” while also finding that the presence of police increases the likelihood of students being arrested for low-level offenses.
Police assigned to schools hold a triple responsibility, simultaneously acting as counselors, role models and law enforcement officers.
As Marc Ridgill, a retired police officer formerly assigned to Grimsley High School and candidate for Guilford County School Board, told WXII 12 recently: “If you see him every day, you’re more likely to come to him, even if it’s just a personal problem that you want an objective opinion on. I could tell you word for word the same thing your parents told you that morning, but because we don’t have that love connection it’s like an epiphany: You’re hearing it for the first time.”
In their role as counselors and role models, police officers assigned to schools undoubtedly make a positive difference and likely reach troubled students who would otherwise harm themselves and their peers. It’s the officers’ ability to arrest and charge students that’s troublesome. In other words, maybe we just need to hire more school counselors.