Cops on campuses are supposed to keep kids safe, but may do more harm than good, study finds

Boy sitting on the floor, sad
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services photo

In 2018, the Florida Legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act with the intention of curbing school violence following the Parkland shooting. The law promised either a law enforcement officer, armed staff, or armed private security at all public schools.

A year or so later, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill giving Florida teachers the option of carrying guns in their classrooms. The volatile issue drew students, teachers and gun-control advocates to the Capitol during the 2019 session.

Now, in 2020, a new study from civil rights and social justice organizations suggests the ballooning law enforcement presence of police on school campuses has unintended outcomes, and the organizations want lawmakers to reassess the mandate.

The study, and an accompanying data analysis released last week, found that since the 2018 law passed, Florida schools have seen a dramatic increase in student behavior cases, more incidents reported to law enforcement, and an uptick in school arrests.

“While the justification for Florida’s school policing mandate was to protect students from mass shootings, there is very little evidence that integrating police into schools makes schools safe,” according to the study titled “The Cost of School Policing.”

The study is a collaborative effort of organizations: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, Equality Florida, Florida Social Justice in Schools Project, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and The League of Women Voters of Florida.

It comes at a time when “school districts across the country are reassessing the efficacy of integrating police officers into schools.” And it “comes on the heels of increased awareness of police brutality and the misuse of law enforcement for social services.”

The accompanying data analysis by F. Chris Curran of the University of Florida Education Policy Research Center examines the relationship between police on campus and long-term affects on student behavior.

“The results suggest a need to reconsider whether law enforcement should be present in schools, and, if they are, how they can be implemented in a way that minimizes unnecessary exposure of students to law enforcement and arrests,” Curran says in the analysis.

Florida Capitol. Credit: Colin Hackley.

Ultimately, the study concludes that Florida policymakers need to reevaluate the use of law enforcement on campuses. The organizations are urging lawmakers to “repeal the school policing mandate” to allow local districts the authority to decide how to use cops on campuses.

The organizations also suggest setting standards for policing practices, including “minimum requirements for training of police in schools, a minimum age for arrest, and limitations on the use of force, including tasers and pepper spray, against children.”

Behavior incidents jump dramatically

Curran, who focuses on school equity issues and school discipline and safety, shows the jump in the number of student behavior incidents reported to the state following the Parkland shooting.

Those incidents can be everything from physical attacks and sexual assault to bullying, fighting and drug and tobacco-related infractions, according to the Florida Department of Education, which tracks the disciplinary incidents.

The incidents jumped from 71,159 in 2017-18 to 84,649 in 2018-19, an almost 19% increase, the data analysis shows.

The analysis also suggests that the big rise in incidents relate to less serious disciplinary infractions. Those kind of lower-level incidents would include tobacco and nicotine on school grounds; possession of alcohol and “one-time, insulting behaviors,” considered harassment, according to the state’s disciplinary categories.

The data also notes that some severe incidents such as physical attacks, declined notably between 2017-18 to 2018-19, based on district averages.

Meanwhile, incidents at schools also led to reports to law enforcement. In 2017-18, 23,404 incidents were reported to law enforcement, compared to 29,275 in 2018-19 — about a 25% increase.

Some incidents led to misdemeanor and felony arrests.

Kaia Rolle

This is in reference to Kaia Rolle, a young girl from Orlando whose hands were restrained with a zip tie when she was arrested and taken into a police car in September 2019 over a temper tantrum. ClickOrlando reported that she was only 6 years old at the time.

In body camera footage of her arrest, Rolle cries while asking for “help” and for a “second chance” as she is being placed in the back of a police car.

And Rolle is not an outlier.

One Year Anniversary Parkland tragedy
A memorial at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, following the mass shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Getty Images photo by Joe Raedle

While school arrests had been declining from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Curran’s analysis shows that the numbers began rising around the time of the Parkland shootings. The number of arrests in 2018-19 increased compared to the year before, and there were nearly 8,000 arrests at public schools statewide.

As to small children: “Police officers arrested elementary-aged kids 345 times, including an arrest of a 5-year-old and five arrests of 6-year olds,” in 2018-19, the new “The Cost of School Policing” study says.

The study says that when there is a lack of student support resources, schools default to resource officers to address students acting out.

“During the 2018-19 school year, 1,129 arrests were made in schools for ‘disorderly conduct’— nearly four times as many as made outside of schools. When there are no student support resources, and there is an officer with no clear role and no clear threat to respond to, officers end up being the person to respond when teachers cannot quickly address student outbursts,” it says.

Aside from the trauma of an arrest, the increasing number of student arrests harm those students well past their K-12 education.

“In Florida, juvenile records are not automatically expunged until age 21 at the earliest,” the study notes. “Some remain until age 26. These records are considered in a young adult’s first applications for a job, to further their college or fund their education, and housing, etc.”

It continues: “These interruptions and burdens make it harder for these kids to successfully age out of delinquency.”

The League of Woman Voters of Florida weighed in saying:

“For too long our lawmakers have failed to set a minimum age of arrest, and it is children and their parents who bear the brunt of that trauma,” Charlotte Nycklemoe, the League’s co-chair for juvenile justice policy, said in a written statement.

“If we want to create safer environments in our schools, we need to create policies that protect our students, not expose them to the harms of over-policing.”

The Baker Act

The study also notes an increase of the use of the Baker Act, which is intended to provide for emergency mental health services or evaluation of people at risk of harming themselves or others.

chalkboard with writing
Photo by Pixabay

School psychologists and clinical social workers need years of training and experience to authorize Baker Act detentions but “there are no prerequisites for police officers to handcuff a child and have them committed,” the study says.

“The Baker Act is increasingly being used on school children who make jokes, act out, exhibit normal manifestations of a known disability, or express ordinary sadness.”

The findings fold into the stresses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, as student mental health and support has become a major talking point in discussions about how to safely reopen schools.

Although the new study and the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act focus on the dangers of increased law enforcement on school campuses, the organizations also highlight the lack of student support services for COVID-19 as the pandemic continues.

In a time when school districts rely on nurses to spot COVID-19 symptoms, the study says there are more police officers (3,650) than school nurses (2,286) in Florida school districts. The numbers reflect the 2018-2019 school year.

“Many schools are beginning to feel the impacts of COVID-19 on their budgets and are struggling to provide the minimum resources needed for education, further calling into question the appropriateness of spending scarce education dollars on policing,” the study says.