School Safety

School policing may be problematic, but so are the alternatives

F. Chris Curran
Originally published in the Gainesville Sun

Recently, the Gainesville City Commission announced plans to end city funding of school police, shifting the entire cost to the school district. The decision follows similar moves in a number of cities nationwide following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Scaling back school police comes as an abrupt shift from decades of increasing police presence in schools.  As of 2015, the latest year for which national data is available, almost half of all public schools nationwide had police present.  Florida schools have been above the national average, with around three quarters of public schools reporting school police in 2018-19.

The decision to reconsider the use of police in schools is not unreasonable.  There is a wide body of research that shows school police are linked with negative outcomes such as increased exclusionary discipline and arrests.  These negative impacts are often disproportionately felt by Black students.

When these negative impacts are considered alongside the economic consequences of the pandemic, school police may be an expendable part of the budget.

However, such deliberations are more complex for schools in our state than they are elsewhere.  In Florida, state law requires all public schools to have sworn law enforcement, armed private security guards, or to arm school staff.  The latter option, known as the Guardian Program, can include arming staff such as teachers or the creation of positions dedicated to school security.

These constrained choices are a result of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a state law passed in the wake of the Parkland tragedy.  While designed to improve school safety, the act has resulted in a steep increase in guns in schools, both among police and school staff. 

What’s more, there is little indication that the requirement makes schools safer.  Research shows that the presence of school police does not reduce causalities during a school shooting, and there is little to no evidence that armed guards or staff members do either.  As we saw in Parkland, the presence of school police did not deter or stop the tragedy.

What does this mean for schools in Florida reconsidering the use of school police? 

In the long term, it points to a need to reevaluate the state law in ways that return decision-making to local school districts and allow for resources to be spent on alternative approaches to improving school safety such as more counselors, restorative justice facilitators, and community resources to address trauma and violence.

In the immediacy, however, it means that local leaders in Florida face a different decision than those in other states.  Removing police from schools means either bringing in security guards with considerably less training or arming school staff.  While there are real reasons to be critical of school police, there are similar and perhaps additional concerns with these alternatives.

School police have been a presence in Alachua County schools for a number of years now.  Law enforcement leadership has taken steps to try to reduce juvenile arrests and to train school police in ways to reduce racial bias.  Even among scholars who are critical of school police, our local school police have been held up as an example of a more progressive and proactive agency.

For many, school police have become integral parts of their school communities.  Even amidst the pandemic, we have seen local school police recording videos of themselves reading books for students, visiting students in the community, and participating in socially distanced graduation ceremonies.  Despite research linking school police to negative outcomes, my work has also found that they can serve as mentors to students and can provide students with a positive view of law enforcement.

This does not mean there is not real work to do to improve school policing.  Just as recent events have pointed to the need for broader policing reforms, school police are no exception.  School police need to deeply consider the ways policing disproportionately harms communities of color and how their presence and interactions with students in schools may propagate such harm.  Policies around use of force, arrests, and roles in discipline warrant re-visiting. 

So long as state law continues to constrain local choices around school security personnel, however, working to improve our existing model is not clearly worse than the alternatives.  As the school board considers whether to continue funding school police, it is important for stakeholders to recognize that the choice in Florida is not as simple as school police or no school police and to make decisions accordingly.