Welcome back to Learning Liberation’s series on Cops out of Schools, Part 3. This week, I take a look at what happens after a student is disciplined by police in school. Did you miss Parts 1 and 2? Check them out:
CONTENT WARNING: THIS POST MAY BE TRIGGERING OR PAINFUL FOR READERS AS IT INCLUDES VERBAL DESCRIPTIONS OF POLICE HARASSMENT, INCARCERATION, AND MENTIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT. Please take care if you choose to read on.
If I had to choose one thing that worries me the most about School Resource Officer (SRO) programs, it would be the fact that more and more, police are handling discipline issues that would normally be left to teachers. Why does this worry me even more than the instances of SRO brutality (see Part 1) or their failure to reduce violence in schools (See Part 2)?
Because when cops handle discipline, it triggers a sequence of life-altering and often traumatic events commonly known as the School to Prison Pipeline.
It’s no secret that kids act up in class sometimes. They call out without raising their hand. They say disrespectful things to their teachers. They mean mug at each other in the hallways. Sometimes, kids get into fights. If you work in a school, these things will be a fact of life. That’s why teachers take so many classes and attend so many seminars about classroom and behavior management — students don’t just magically know how to act in school, and we realize that it is our job to teach them. Just as teachers teach students how to read, write narratives, compute algebraic functions, write a lab report, dissect a frog, sing in harmony, or build a balsa wood bridge, we also teach our students how to behave in our classrooms and interact with each other in respectful ways.
So normally, when a student misbehaves in class and a teacher handles it, the following happens:
- The teacher gives a verbal warning and re-states the expectation
- If the kid doesn’t stop, the teacher may take them out of class for a short time and have a 1:1 talk
- If the kid still doesn’t stop, the teacher may call a parent or give a detention
- If the kid still doesn’t stop, the teacher may isolate the student and give an alternative assignment related to the misbehavior
- Finally, if 1-4 didn’t stop the misbehavior, the teacher can send the student to the office with a behavior referral
Good teachers with a strong background in behavior management know not to yell, escalate a problem, or ever put their hands on a student as part of discipline.
But police officers don’t have a degree in teaching. They are trained to punish people who break their rules. So when a police officer is called to handle discipline, the process looks like this:
- The teacher gives a verbal warning and re-states the expectation
- If the kid doesn’t stop, the teacher warns that they’ll call the SRO
- If the kid doesn’t stop the behavior, the teacher calls in the SRO.
- The SRO removes the student from class, often using physical force to do so. You can find video footage of SROs physically dragging, slamming, and tasering children quite easily.
- The SRO issues an administrative referral OR arrests the student on the grounds that their in-class behavior was “disorderly conduct.”
Okay, so before I explain what happens, here’s some context: SROs are most often employed in schools with so-called “Zero Tolerance” policies. Zero Tolerance policies are basically discipline plans that requite schools to automatically suspend or expel students for certain kinds of misbehavior, particularly if a cop got involved. It’s an extension of broken windows policing, which is based on the (incorrect) notion that if you come down hard on minor offenses, you’ll prevent bigger problems. In schools, it looks like coming down hard on talking back or a shove in the hallway to “prevent” kids bringing in weapons or drugs. So even though Zero-Tolerance policies were meant to enforce weapon bans in schools, they quickly expanded to include very subjective offenses like “insubordination” or “disrupting the learning environment.”
What this means is that once a child is disciplined by police for their in-school behavior, their educational trajectory changes.
Here’s what happens.
- Once an officer issues a discipline referral for a student, the student will most likely be suspended from school. Just this referral means the student is 23 TIMES MORE LIKELY to be referred to the Juvenile (in)Justice system. (Citations below)
- Even at the elementary level, a first-time offense can lead to being suspended for an entire week.
- In some states, up to 91-97% of all disciplinary actions were discretionary, meaning that only 3-9% of misbehaviors that lead to suspension or expulsion are required by law to result in suspension or expulsion.
- Being suspended from school, even for just a day, is the NUMBER ONE predictor that the student will eventually end up in prison.
- When a student is not in school, they lose opportunities to learn better behaviors and miss important information in their classes. 31% of students who are suspended or sent to an alternative school have to repeat a grade.
- Once they return to school, the student is further behind on their homework and experiences higher levels of stress. They often feel nervous or targeted as well, especially if they were suspended early in the year or for a first-time offense. These things make it harder for them to meet the expectations in class.
- Repeat offenses in Zero-Tolerance schools lead to harsher punishments. After a second or third suspension, a student may be sent to an Alternative School for anywhere from 4 weeks to the entire school year. These Alternative Schools often fail to hire qualified teachers or provide adequate special education services.
- Some alternative schools, such as one described by professors at EKU’s School of Justice (citation below), are literally housed in prisons and run by a sheriff. Others aren’t technically in prisons, but look at lot like them, with metal detectors at the entrance and as many security guards as there are teachers.
- Once at an alternative school, violations of the Zero-Tolerance policy are often met with a Class C Misdemeanor ticket, arrest, and/or placement in a Juvenile Justice education program (ie, a prison school).
But not all SROs refer students to the principal’s office. Sometimes, they arrest students or issue them a ticket on the spot. In Texas, for example, 275,000 tickets were issued to K-12 students in a single school year for “offenses” such as acting up in class, yelling on a school bus, or even an unexcused absence. So what happens then?
- Whether the student is arrested or issued a ticket, they are referred to juvenile court. Only 18% of all cases will be dismissed for a lack of legal grounds. The other 82% of students and their parents have to either appear in juvenile court or agree to “informal” sanctions.
- Informal sanctions can include referral to a social service agency, community service, or “informal probation” (I won’t lie – I have no idea what that means)
- Another “informal” punishment often given is a fine – in some states, the student can be fined as much as $500. of up to $500. For most public school parents, this is an unaffordable sum. So even “just a ticket” can throw a family into turmoil by leading to “failure to pay” charges and imprisonment.
- If the student is sent to juvenile court, they’re most likely going to be found guilty (61% of youth are), at which point they either go to a juvenile justice facility, AKA youth prison, OR are put on probation. In either case, they join the one-in-37 Americans living under correctional control.
- Another 1% of all youth are referred to the adult court system.
- Students found guilty in adult courts face some of the worst outcomes of all. There are approximately 90,000 children living in adult prisons right now. These children are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted and 36 times more likely to attempt suicide than children in juvenile facilities.
- Ultimately, one out of every five children referred to juvenile court ends up incarcerated.
These are not opinions or guesses. These are the facts about what happens when police officers get involved with school discipline — when all is said and done, a lot of children end up living in prison. Even those who aren’t referred to juvie are still at a higher risk of dropping out of school (which, again, makes them 8 times more likely to be arrested as adults) or otherwise failing to graduate.
As a teacher, I find this to be unacceptable. It is my job to do everything I can to help my students learn the skills they need to live successful lives on their own terms. My students are my responsibility. Earning their respect and cooperation is my responsibility. Their learning and engagement is my responsibility. I am the teacher. If a student does not know how to behave appropriately in my classroom, I need to teach them.
How dare I allow a police officer to do my job in my classroom?
As a special education teacher, and a teacher in a school that is 60% African American and 30% Hispanic, I am even more concerned about how police harm students with disabilities and those from minority backgrounds. And that, dear Liberators, will be the focus of Part 4 in our series on School Policing.
Liberators, do your schools follow Zero-Tolerance policies? Do you ever call on police to intervene in your classroom? How do you feel about police handling discipline in your schools? Let’s talk about it!
- Campaign for Youth Justice, Key Facts
- Washington Post, Most Public School Students Live in Poverty
- Justice Policy Institute, Education Under Arrest
- NAACP, Criminal Justice Fact Sheet
- Equal Justice Initiative, Challenging Abusive Punishment of Juveniles
- Schept, Wall, and Brisman (2015), “Building, Staffing, and Insulating: An Architecture of Criminological Complicity in the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” (academic journal, may not be accessible to public)
- Council of State Governments Justice Center, Breaking School Rules
- Fowler (2011), School Discipline Feeds the Pipeline to Prison (academic journal, may not be accessible to public)