Policy solutions are needed to improve school discipline
Rebecca Epstein & Monique W. Morris
School-based police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs), have become a common and growing presence in schools across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 30,000 SROs were working in public schools in the 2013-14 academic year. While the presence of law enforcement in school is intended to increase school safety, it has also been associated with increased surveillance and the criminalization of students—especially students of color.
Today, black girls and other girls of color disproportionately experience referrals to law enforcement and arrests in schools. Black girls are nearly three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white girls, and almost four times more likely to be arrested. However, few of the resources designed to combat the criminalization of students have applied a unique analysis to the ways in which SROs interact with girls of color.
The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality (of which Rebecca Epstein is the executive director) and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (of which Monique W. Morris is the co-founder and president) partnered on a two-year project that built on our experience working on school discipline issues for girls of color. We drew on our collective legal, policy, and research expertise to interview dozens of girls of color and officers across the country. Many of our interviews took place in Southern schools—Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Florida—as this is an underexamined region. We also spoke with girls and SROs in California and Washington, D.C.
The resulting toolkit, released last month, brings officers’ and girls’ voices into the conversation. In our interviews, SROs said they believe their most important function is to ensure safety and respond to criminal behavior, yet they report that educators routinely ask them to respond to disciplinary matters. They also do not receive regular training around how to interact with girls of color. Many SROs report attempting to modify the behavior and appearance of girls of color to conform with “mainstream” cultural norms, urging them to act more “ladylike.”
When we spoke with girls of color, they primarily defined the role of SROs as maintaining school safety. Their own sense of safety is built on communication and positive, respectful relationships with SROs. African-American girls, in particular, say racial bias negatively affects how SROs respond to them in school.
Our findings spurred policy recommendations and concrete solutions for school districts and police departments to improve interactions between SROs and girls of color, including:
• Clearly delineate law enforcement roles and responsibilities in formal agreements between police departments and schools;
• Collect and review discipline data that can be disaggregated by race and gender, and act to reduce patterns of disproportionality through intentional relationship-building exercises, a robust continuum of alternatives from arrest and referral to law enforcement, and training relevant to race and gender issues;
• Offer specialized training to officers and educators on race and gender issues and children’s mental health; and
• Train educators on the appropriate roles and limits on SRO activity and how to effectively handle disciplinary issues without police involvement.
For more research and recommendations, take a look at the full report.
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