A new study from the University of Florida and the ALCU claims that increased policing in schools has not made schools any safer and might be doing more bad than good.
The mass shooting and killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 sparked new debate about the safety of Florida’s schools.
Recommendation from a commission formed in response to the shooting led to legislation mandating the presence of law enforcement or armed personnel in schools in an effort to make campuses safer.
But, the University of Florida’s F. Chris Curran said the presence of law enforcement in schools isn’t actually making things better.
“My read of the scientific evidence, and that which comes out of my study, suggest that some of the approaches, particularly the use of law enforcement in schools may not be the best way to ensure our students safety,” Curran said. “And in fact, may be having some unintended negative collateral consequences for students.”
For the study, Curran analyzed data from 2014 through 2019. The publicly available data came from the Florida Departments of Education and Juvenile Justice, school districts, and local law enforcement agencies.
Curran, director of the Education Policy Research Center at the University of Florida, said his study showed no evidence of police presence making schools any safer outside of creating the illusion of safety. He said increased police presence was a knee-jerk reaction that created the optics of safety, but took focus off other, less visible areas, like mental health.
“Some people have characterized this as security theater,” Curran said. “A way of demonstrating safety without necessarily thinking about the best practices, which would actually ensure safety.”
The study shows school arrests have more than doubled in the years since the mandate went into effect, especially among elementary-aged children. In some cases, children as young as six years old have been arrested for what are considered lower-level incidents that don’t necessarily require the intervention of law enforcement.
“Because schools lack that support and resource, they end up resorting to using law enforcement to intervene when they just don’t know how o manage the student,” school psychologist Angela Mann said. “That’s where we see these five and six-year-olds being arrested.”
Mann, who is part of the Florida Social Justice in Schools Project and the National Association of School Psychologists, said many school-based law enforcement interactions could be better solved with the help of mental health professionals. However, there are now more than double the number of police officers in schools than social workers and school psychologists combined.
“I think if we had really good school-based mental health support in school and if that’s where we were investing, we would be able to catch and start working with schools earlier,” Mann said. “Before it escalates to some of these bigger concerns where students are being arrested, where students are being pushed out of schools through things like suspension, expulsions, those types of things.”
According to data in the report, arrests rose at similar rates among most racial demographics. Curran said he found that as more students are being arrested, Black students are “grossly over represented in school arrests.”
“Despite the fact that there are considerably more white students in the state of Florida than there are black students,” he said, “the kind of raw number of arrests of students at public schools is significantly higher for Black students than it is for white students.”
Those arrests add to what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the idea that early negative encounters with law enforcement doesn’t deter children from bad behavior, but rather increases the likelihood of future negative interactions and pushes students out of schools.
“Since the majority of these arrests are occurring at schools, it’s traumatizing to children,” Jennifer Adams, co-chair of the League of Women Voters Juvenile Justice Committee said. “It repeats the generational cycles of abuse, of getting into the justice system for the wrong reasons.”
Curran added the racial disparities in arrests further a centuries-old system of systemic racism.
“The disproportionalities we see reflected in schools and school arrests and school discipline are a reflection of this broader problem of systemic racism,” he said. “Then how that’s been reflected in the policies and practices of our social systems.”
But Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, said the entire report is hogwash.
“He really should start his study with ‘Once upon a time in a land far, far away,” Judd said. “Because what he has there is a story, not a scientific study.”
Based on his findings, Curran said Florida needs to reassess whether it’s even necessary to have police in schools. And if so, he said, there needs to be more regulation, like limits on the types of interactions police are involved in and limits on the age a student can be arrested. While some districts have enacted similar rules, the state mandate doesn’t include requirements for those restrictions.
Sheriff Judd said Curran and the ACLU are trying to undo years of work.
“They’re trying to uproot over a quarter century of good work and relationships we’ve built in the schools and with students,” he said.
Ultimately, Adams with the League of Women Voters Juvenile Justice Committee said, Florida needs to consider the type of environment and perception it wants to create of schools.
“It’s punitive in nature and I don’t think anybody wants our schools to be places where children are penalized (with arrests), she said. “And we’re talking about things that would typically be addressed by going to the school principal.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement deferred questions to the MSD Commission. The commission’s head, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, did not respond do a request for comment. The Department of Education also did not respond.
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