Police Occupation of Florida’s Schools Won’t Keep Students Safe From Violence

Florida’s recent school safety legislation requires that schools have at least one campus police officer or armed school employee by the 2018–2019 school year. Before rushing to comply with the legislation’s mandate, local school officials should examine the history of police in schools to understand how a mass hiring of school resource officers will put Florida’s black and brown students at an increased risk of being unjustly criminalized.

As a biracial student at the predominantly white Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole, I felt a personal responsibility to speak out after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Alongside 30 other students from across the county, I helped organize the St. Petersburg March for Our Lives where I gave a speech intended to be in front of Mayor Rick Kriseman and more than 1,500 others, addressing the culture of fear and intimidation that militarization of schools creates, particularly amongst students of color.

For myself and many others in Pinellas County, this reality is personal. I was once questioned by a school resource officer for coming to the defense of the LGBTQIA+ community after a group of students posted a class project with a grossly bigoted message on social media. Even though I was merely attempting to shed light on a recurring problem at my school, I felt as if I was being interrogated by an officer who was looking for someone to hold responsible, who made false assumptions about my involvement in the situation, and who had me reveal personal information that I was not comfortable sharing at the time.

In the aftermath of prominent school shootings such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, and now Marjory Stoneman Douglas, local and federal governments have resorted to increased funding for school police and other security measures like metal detectors and surveillance equipment as their solution to gun violence in schools. As history continues to repeat itself, one vital question has been left out of the conversation: how has increased police presence in schools really affected school safety?

Since the Columbine shooting, an unprecedented number of officers have been placed in schools, but the result has not been less violence. Instead, the result has been school environments where students feel threatened by the culture of policing and common discipline issues resulting in a criminal record or worse — violent assaults against students. However, despite our government putting more funds towards increasing the presence of resource officers on campuses since then, the success rate of these officers eliminating the threat is still lower than the success rate when unarmed staff members disarm the shooter.

While there is little information proving that police presence in schools has prevented violence, the data confirms a direct link between police in schools and the criminalization of students. For example, a policy brief released by Advancement Project’s national office sites that Denver experienced a 71% increase in referrals to law enforcement in the years after Columbine, mostly for minor offenses that traditionally would have been handled “with a call home or a trip to the principal’s office.” In addition to the increased likelihood of being arrested, having contact with police on a regular basis or even just witnessing an arrest is traumatizing, particularly for students of color who experience the harsh realities of criminalization in their communities.

Not only are students more likely to be arrested as a result of the decision to put more police in schools, data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection confirms a trend of racist policing in schools across the country, and in Florida specifically. In Pinellas County Schools, for example, between 2010 and 2015, only 19% of the student population was black, but black students represented 59% of all school referrals to law enforcement. This is nearly four times more than such referrals for white students in the county during the same time period. This statistic is even more alarming when applied to students with disabilities: Despite making up only 23.5% of the county’s students with disabilities, black students comprise 52.8% of the 223 law enforcement referrals that took place in 2015 alone.

To implement the requirements of the school safety act, Florida would have to more than double the current school police force across the state. This effort will cost students increased access to more valuable resources like teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and program supports. At a board meeting in April, the Pinellas County School Board discussed considerations they are making to fulfill the decision to hire 156 new school police officers. From a budget perspective, investing in school police is not effective at increasing school safety, but the implications for over-criminalized communities go far beyond budget considerations.

Students of color in Pinellas County deserve much better than to be handed down a blanket solution that does not address real school safety. The fact that this legislation has passed presents a real challenge for local school districts, but just because this is the law it does not mean that it is the right solution. School boards should make every effort to implement alternatives to police that have been proven effective before making any decisions to comply with this legislation. We cannot afford to have our representatives fail us by creating a pathway for young people to be criminalized and subjected to violence at the hands of the police.

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