Ruth Taddesse, now a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, celebrated the March 2021 announcement that her school district would be the first in the state to pull police from its schools.
She’d watched as school districts around the country removed officers from campuses after student-led protests for racial justice following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
But the celebration was short-lived: Just over a year after the county’s no-police-in-schools declaration, the school district and local police department reached a new agreement that restored armed officers — now known as “community engagement officers” — to schools. While the officers wouldn’t be permanently stationed on campuses, they would have an office inside each high school and would participate in events like career days, school assemblies and study circles.
“They’re actually encouraged to engage with elementary kids,” said Taddesse, now an organizer with the student-led MoCo Against Brutality campaign. She joined the group after researching the disproportionate rates at which Black, Latino and special education students face increased discipline and referral to law enforcement when armed officers work at their schools.
“They’re not social workers,” Taddesse said of police. “They’re not restorative justice coaches. They never will be. Expecting them to help young people, that’s dangerous.”
Dozens of school districts across the country severed their relationships with local police or committed to removing armed officers from campus in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests. Youth leaders hoped to build on that momentum and get more schools and districts to follow suit, while replacing the money they spend on policing with mental health and other support services for students.
But now, some school districts have changed their minds, often in response to calls from parents to ramp up school security as student misbehavior surged last fall when kids returned to campuses. In the Montgomery County district, for example, the decision to bring back armed officers followed demands from parents for greater security after a January 2021 shooting of a student in a high school bathroom. In an email, Christopher Cram, the district’s spokesperson, said the school system put in “immense effort” to seek input from families, students and others before bringing back police, and the new agreement supports school safety while trying to ensure that Black and Hispanic students are not disproportionately targeted.
The calls for increased security intensified after the massacre in May of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Meanwhile, the bipartisan gun safety bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in the wake of the Uvalde shooting more than doubled federal funding for schools to train teachers on violence prevention, purchase security hardware and hire school resource officers, or SROs, as school police are often called. At the same time, some Republican-controlled state legislatures have introduced or advanced bills to override local school board and city council decisions and mandate armed officers in schools.
“There was obviously a big push shortly after George Floyd, and a lot of momentum around police reform generally, including on the issue of police in schools, and clearly there’s been a backsliding,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the nonprofit Justice Policy Institute. “The unfortunate reality is that although police in schools may sound appealing, may seem an appropriate response,” he added, “we see no evidence of policing making schools safer.”
Related: What happens once school resource officers leave schools?
Police first started patrolling American schools in the 1940s and ’50s, often as part of racist resistance to the integration of white neighborhoods and schools. But in recent decades, several high-profile school shootings fueled the expansion of federal grants to boost the ranks of police in schools: In 1975, just 1 percent of schools reported having a police officer on campus; that share rose to 58 percent by 2018, according to research from the University of Connecticut. Students in high school are more likely to see police than kids in early grades; so are those in schools with higher shares of Black and Hispanic students, the Urban Institute found.
The campaign for police-free schools, meanwhile, started over a decade ago with the formation of local groups such as the Black Organizing Project in Oakland, California, and the Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City. Those groups’ fights received national attention as civil unrest roiled the country following the 2020 police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Student organizers joined, and often led, demonstrations to remove police from their schools. And at first, school boards seemed to listen.
“It was a really hard battle, but at the end of the day, students had their voices heard,” said Sindy Carballo, a 2020 graduate of Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia who helped campaign for the removal of police from that district.
“It’s a community-based policing approach. It is very important to know that relationship-building with parents and students and with [school] staff has to be the number one goal of a school resource officer.”
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers
The effort was successful: In May 2021, the Alexandria City Council voted to end its funding for school resource officers. But then parents overrode their children, holding protests and pleading with city council members to restore funding for campus police. Five months later, the council heeded their pleas and voted 4-3 to place SROs back in middle and high schools.
“Fast forward to when students went back to school, and suddenly there’s all this backlash from parents saying so much trauma happened during the pandemic and teachers weren’t prepared and we definitely need police in schools again,” said Carballo, now a youth organizer with the group Tenants and Workers United.
Researchers with Education Week identified at least 50 school districts that removed police from schools or cut budgets for policing programs from May 2020 through June 2022. Eight districts, including Alexandria City Public Schools, have since added police back, the news outlet found.
An uptick in violence and misbehavior is one reason. Nationally, a full third of U.S. public schools reported an increase in physical attacks or fights between students due to Covid and its complications. More than half of schools reported a pandemic-related rise in classroom disruptions and student tardiness, and physical attacks by students against a teacher or staff member increased at 1 in 10 schools.
Related: Some kids have returned to in-person learning only to be kicked right back out
Arleen Yaz Alonso, director of youth organizing for Gente Organizada, a nonprofit in Pomona, California, said the pandemic exacerbated mental health challenges among students, which contributed to behavior problems in schools. But she said a solution would be to invest in student mental health — not police officers.
The Pomona Unified School District appeared to be embracing that idea when, in June 2021, it announced it would no longer employ SROs and would instead hire proctors trained in de-escalating conflicts. But only a few months later, the district said it was bringing back SROs, following an October shooting near Pomona High School. (The district did not respond to interview requests.)
“It is absurd and unnecessary to bring an armed officer to a campus where there are minors,” said Alonso. “Schools are a place for education and a place for students to learn about themselves, about academics, to dream big, and having an armed police officer on campus is not the route to go.”
Proponents of school resource officers say they bring stability to schools. Because they are stationed in school buildings over the long term, SROs can build relationships with students, unlike local police who might be called in to respond to an emergency. “It’s a community-based policing approach,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “It is very important to know that relationship-building with parents and students and with [school] staff has to be the number one goal of a school resource officer.”
But experts who have studied police in schools note a lack of evidence to suggest that police improve safety. A review of the research on school police released in May by the education nonprofit WestEd found no link between placing police at schools and prevention of crime. Meanwhile, the bulk of the research on the topic revealed that school-based officers actually contribute to higher rates of student discipline, without improving school safety. The WestEd review found no connection between school-based law enforcement and learning outcomes, including attendance.
“If the U.S. was spending money on a drug trial and they kept finding it wasn’t working and it wasn’t working, and actually had bad side effects, then we would have stopped funding that drug trial ages ago,” said Ben Fisher, associate professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the WestEd study, citing an analogy used by the sociologist Aaron Kupchik. Instead of continuing to throw money at an ineffective security strategy with unintended consequences, schools should instead be investing in proven strategies, like counseling, Fisher said.
In some cases, school districts that seek to remove police may now find they can’t do so because of state-level decisions. Kentucky earlier this year passed legislation that requires a police officer on every school campus in the state, except when schools lack the funding to hire an officer. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators introduced a bill to require school districts to appoint an SRO on every campus that meets a threshold for arrests and violent incidents.
“Fast forward to when students went back to school, and suddenly there’s all this backlash from parents saying so much trauma happened during the pandemic and teachers weren’t prepared and we definitely need police in schools again.”
Sindy Carballo, a 2020 graduate of Virginia’s Alexandria City school district, who campaigned for the removal of police from that district
Young people, meanwhile, are adjusting their strategies, too.
In Alexandria, students plan to keep asking school board members “every chance we get” about why they continue to police student behavior, said Carballo. “But we’re also asking, ‘Are you willing to implement more resources for restorative justice, for mental health?’ ”
All the board members have said yes, Carballo said, but no one has committed to a specific amount. She suggested: “How about let’s start somewhere? What about $500,000?”
In Pomona, California, Gente Organizada and the students who work alongside it are still in talks with the district, too, Alonso said. Currently, they are pushing for the creation of school-based mental health centers where students could go for support.
In Denver, where the school district canceled its contract with local police but later expanded its staff of armed security officers and gave them authority to issue tickets to students, youth organizers with the community group Movimiento Poder spent their summer drafting a plan to take their fight statewide and override district leaders.
And in Montgomery County, Ruth Taddesse and other members of MoCo Against Brutality created an online “police sighting form” that people can fill out when they see armed officers on campus. The idea, she said, is to let police know that students don’t want them there.
“They think if students start seeing cops walking around, we’ll start complaining — which is obviously what we plan on doing.”
Caroline Preston contributed reporting to this story.
This story about police in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.