‘Safety’ In U.S. Schools Means More Cops And Fewer Counselors

An estimated 14 million students attend a school without a single counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union. But their schools do employ cops. 

This disparity is poised to get worse after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, inspired the federal government and many state legislatures to push for enhanced security on campuses and prioritize the “hardening” of schools.  

“There’s a dangerous trend in prioritizing law enforcement as a response to school safety when no evidence suggests that’s going to improve things,” said Amir Whitaker, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California and co-author of the report released Monday.  

The ACLU report analyzes data from the federal government. The government first began collecting data on how many social workers, nurses and psychologists schools employ in 2016 and released its findings in April 2018. (It already collected data on school counselors.) These numbers are self-reported by schools, so they may be unreliable. However, Whitaker said, “it’s literally the only data we have available.”

The 14 million students who go to schools that do have at least one police officer but don’t have a single psychologist, nurse, social worker or counselor represents about 31 percent of students in the U.S., according to the ACLU report. In some states, such as Utah and Tennessee, more than 50 percent of students attend such schools. 

Not a single state meets the recommended average ratio of 250 students to one social worker in schools. The national average is currently 2,106 students to every social worker.

In many cases, schools are prioritizing security and police over medical care or mental health support.

Most states are flouting the recommended ratios for students per nurse, students per counselor, students per social worker and students per psychologist, according to the report. 

Not a single state meets the recommended average ratio of 250 students to one social worker in schools. The national average is currently 2,106 students to every social worker. There is a need for psychological support for students, however. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicates the suicide rate for kids between the ages of 10 and 17 increased about 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. 

And as more police officers work in schools, there’s evidence that more kids are being funneled into the criminal justice system, even for minor misbehaviors.

Research has shown that kids are more likely to be referred to law enforcement for activities like drugs, theft and vandalism in schools that employ agents called school resource officers. This cycle contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately hurts students of color and students with disabilities. Behavior that might have been previously addressed with a detention or trip to the principal’s office is now resulting in criminal records.

Black students are arrested at school at three times the rate of white students, and students with disabilities are two and a half times more likely to be arrested at school than their peers who are not disabled, according to the ACLU report. A previous investigation from HuffPost found that cops are Tasering students across the country.

The knee-jerk reaction is to turn schools into fortresses.
Amir Whitaker, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California

Cops at school do what they are trained to do, the ACLU report says: “detain, handcuff, and arrest.”

“You’re seeing this all over, where the knee-jerk reaction is to turn schools into fortresses,” Whitaker said.

The ACLU report comes two months after the Trump administration released its own report on school safety. That earlier report, which was put together after the Parkland shooting by a federal school safety commission, recommended increasing mental health resources in school, as well as enhancing social emotional learning ― but it also recommended increasing police presence at schools and touted the potential benefits of arming staff members. Several days after it released the report, the Trump administration scrapped Obama-era guidance that was designed to prevent racist school discipline policies.

There is no comprehensive research that indicates cops actually deter school shootings. However, schools with law enforcement on campus are more likely to have emergency plans in place and receive regular safety checks.

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