The Kids are Alright, it’s the System that’s Fucked.

I live in a pretty great area.  Folks in my town are educated, generally respectful of one another and help each other out.  Recently, placing police in schools has been the subject of some debate in my community. There has never been a school shooting in our town and our school system is among the best in our state. This isn’t a discussion unique to my town, it’s an issue that is creeping its way into communities throughout the country.

The primary argument in support of the measure- although a shooting has never happened, it COULD happen.

Yes, anything could happen but if we widen the lens a bit more nationally we find that all kids, not just those in our top tier system, are more likely to die in car accidents than they are in school. They are also more likely to get struck by lightning or die accidentally in their bathrooms.   180 people were killed in school shootings between 1980 and 2012 (a 30 year time period). Between 2003 and 2009 (a 6 year time period) 272 people died in police custody from accidental injury alone and another 273 people died from unknown causes.  Starting to wonder about the logic behind police in schools yet?

Despite the numbers, the question that continues to persist from advocates of the initiative is something to the effect of – “what’s the harm in having a police officer in a school?” Actually quite a bit according to a University of Florida study that took a hard look at the issue.

this Article presents an original empirical analysis revealing that a police officer’s regular presence at a school is predictive of greater odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for committing various offenses, including these lower-level offenses. This trend holds true even after controlling for: (1) state statutes that require schools to report certain incidents to law enforcement; (2) general levels of criminal activity and disorder that occur at schools; (3) neighborhood crime; and (4) other demographic variables.

In other words, things that would normally be handled by school personnel and parents shift over to the courts. This has the potential of altering a child’s trajectory significantly in ways that would have never happened in the past. Not to mention that for every school shooting, I can come back with three or four incidents of police abuse.

Then there are the peripheral arguments such as…

Wouldn’t it be good for our kids to have another adult for kids to speak to?

or

Couldn’t teachers use the additional support?

Teachers, nurses, and counselors are trained, licensed and certified to help children in many aspects of their life. Having someone with a gun entering the scene who is unlikely to have that same level of training is probably not going to help. As for the additional support, I’m guessing using the money for an EAP program or more teachers might be a bit more helpful?

But let’s take a step back a bit and ask ourselves a more fundamental question. What is the purpose of school? If your view of school involves an environment of learning that is non-threatening and models problem-solving in a manner that is comfortable and informal, having a police officer hovering over your children may not be a good fit. If your view of school is closer to a lockdown facility where safety above all else is the primary goal, then sure…this works. The reality is locked doors and unarmed personnel near the doors are probably as effective in preventing the school shooting that will likely never happen.

Now, what is the purpose of a police officer?  That question was answered quite clearly by our very own Supreme Court a few years back. They are obligated to protect the State.

Not you.

Not your children.

US schools have bigger problems facing them than school shootings, including poor performance (even great school systems have a tough time keeping up globally) and the rarely talked about sexual abuse that occurs in schools which affect more children than shootings.  So if the system is failing our children, why are we hiring cops to protect the system from them?

Lastly, there is the more political/philosophical question surrounding our children being in consistent contact with armed guards hired by the state.  They have parents, family and other professionals who provide them support in ways that are caring and competent.  If a friend happens to be a police officer then no problem, but I don’t buy into the idea that a badge and a gun automatically makes a person someone I want my kids to cultivate a close relationship with or trust.  It’s a little too Big Brother for my taste.

I don’t think police officers are bad, they are as fallible as everyone else. They are people, many trying to do the best they can to support themselves and their families. So it’s not just that they are fallible but also armed and I know who they work for.

I’ve worked in residential treatment facilities, intensive treatment programs, and in-home programs. The teens I worked with were good kids who had some really tough breaks biologically, environmentally or both. Many of these facilities and homes were in low-income or middle-income neighborhoods. Never once did I or any member of my team consider a police presence. In nearly two decades I have had to contact the police six times and only one of those times involved a violent incident. In all cases, no one was harmed and the police simply provided transportation to the appropriate facility as required by program protocol.  In the one incident that became violent, there was nothing that having a police officer in the building would have changed.

I’ve also had my fair share of run ins with bureaucracies.  Several years back in a meeting with state representatives for a program I used to work for, I was essentially kicked out of a meeting.  What happened?  The state representative was upset because we did not call Child Protective Services when a youth expressed fear that her parent might be angry as a result of breaking a rule.  No history of abuse on the parent, nothing – just that the kid was afraid of getting yelled at for something she did wrong.  At the time CPS was trying to justify increased funding for a warm line initiative it was rolling out.  In order to justify continued/increased funding, they had to demonstrate demand.  During this time there appeared to be increased efforts to tighten the screws on agencies to loosen criteria for CPS calls.  I refused until they provided me with clear criteria for a call in writing as the law is written rather vaguely.

They were unwilling to clarify the definition and I was unwilling to bend, she got really, really mad so my boss threw me out.  My former boss and I are still friends and laugh about it now.  Actually, we laughed about it right after the meeting too.

A school that may start with one officer leads to an increase in arrests.  Those arrests manufacture a false sense of demand.  One police officer turns into two police officers to meet this demand.  This, in turn, leads to more arrests and the need for more officers.

Maybe it’s time we stop projecting our anxieties on students and begin to ask some hard questions about the adults calling the shots.

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