Bullies in Blue: The Origins and Consequence of School Policing

school policing

Under the auspices of protecting children, we have accepted the infringement of law enforcement into one of the most important civic institutions: our schools. Once in schools, the scrutiny and authority of law enforcement are turned upon schoolchildren themselves, the very group that’s supposed to be protected.

This report is intended to shed light on the origins of school policing as well as the real and devastating consequences of education under law and order. Over the past 50 years, schools—particularly in poor Black and Latino communities—have become sites of increased criminalization of young people. Coupled with the rise of mass incarceration came a punitive turn toward adolescents and the extension of youth policing from neighborhood block to street corner, to playground, and finally, to the classroom.

Politicians, law enforcement, and the media created a false panic about youth crime epidemics that justified the targeted and punitive policing of low-income Black and Latino youth. Later, fears of another Columbine massacre misguidedly drove the expansion of infrastructure that ensured the permanent placement of police in schools.

The permanent presence of police in schools does little to make schools safer, but can, in fact, make them less so.

As this report outlines, the permanent presence of police in schools does little to make schools safer, but can, in fact, make them less so.

Like other criminal justice policies that have fueled mass incarceration, at its origins, school policing enforced social control over Black and Latino youth who could no longer be kept out of neighborhoods and schools through explicitly discriminatory laws. Today, police officers assigned to patrol schools are often referred to as “school resource officers,” or SROs, who are described as “informal counselors” and even teachers, while many schools understaff real counselors and teachers.

Their power to legally use physical force, arrest and handcuff students, and bring the full weight of the criminal justice system to bear on misbehaving children is often obscured until an act of violence, captured by a student’s cellphone, breaks through to the public. Police in schools are first and foremost there to enforce criminal laws, and virtually every violation of a school rule can be considered a criminal act if viewed through a police-first lens.

Schools offer an ideal entry point for the criminal justice system to gather intelligence, surveil young people, and exercise strong-arm policing tactics to instill fear and compliance. The capacity for school policing to turn against students instead of protecting them has always existed, and it continues to pose a first-line threat to the civil rights and civil liberties of young people.

President Donald J. Trump has committed to a “law and order” administration—a promise that includes an embrace of “broken windows” policing and “stop and frisk.” Linking hyperbolic rhetoric about drugs and gangs with failing schools, President Trump has described cities as grounds of “American carnage.” Such language echoes the discredited and damaging hysteria of decades past. We have every reason to fear that this rhetoric will translate into actions, and history shows us that these will have grave consequences for low-income communities of color, which have time and time again been the subjects of these policies.

A resurgence of the ethos of broken windows policing will no doubt have an impact on school policies, as policing in schools reflects policing outside schools. We have, over the past several years and as a result of cellphone cameras, seen police physically abuse children for common youth behavior.

A “law and order” presidency could reverse recent guidelines issued by the Departments of Justice and Education encouraging schools to limit law enforcement involvement in discipline, and it could lead to an expansion of the most harmful practices in school policing.

Before this happens, we must understand the bad policies and flawed assumptions that got us here and the impact they have on families and communities. We must make a deliberate choice to embrace alternative approaches to school safety.

Read the full report here: ACLU Bullies in Blue

Principal authors: Megan French-Marcelin, ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow and PolicyResearch Manager, and Sarah Hinger, ACLU Racial Justice Program staff attorney.