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Cops in the classroom

School systems across the United States debate the effectiveness of police officers on campus

Cops in the classroom

A demonstrator holds a sign in front of the downtown skyline during a protest to demand the defunding of the Los Angeles school district police on June 23 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

A high school student in foster care had recently suffered the death of his mother, his only remaining family member. He was depressed and angry, and a rumor spread across his Los Angeles school last November that he was suicidal. The principal went to talk to him, but the boy kept his mouth shut and his expressions blank. So the principal called the police. While he was in class, police officers called him out, handcuffed him, and marched him down the hallway toward a police car. 

He wasn’t charged: The officers merely escorted him to a mental institution. But the public humiliation the boy experienced in front of his peers was yet another traumatizing event for an already traumatized child. After that incident, the boy didn’t want to return and insisted on dropping out until a few teachers gently talked him out of it.

Laura (WORLD is using a pseudonym because she fears losing her job for talking to media) was one of those teachers. She remembers being confused and aghast as she watched Los Angeles Police Department officers flank the handcuffed student in the hallways. He had opened up to her. “He was clearly just struggling,” she recalled. “He didn’t trust the principal, so he didn’t want to talk to her. But the next resort was simply to call the police.”

While protesters nationwide have called to defund the police, a significant group within that movement is focusing on removing school resource officers (SROs) or police officers from schools, particularly those in low-income, heavy-minority areas. SRO advocates fear that makes schools less safe and removes potential mentors for students. “Defund the school police” advocates say they want to divert funds toward more school counselors, therapists, and programs to help parents help kids before trouble starts. They say minority students especially feel unsafe with police on campus due to perceived racial profiling or over-criminalization of black and brown students. 

School districts in major urban cities such as Los AngelesSan FranciscoSeattleMinneapolisMilwaukeeDenver, and Portland have already announced they’ll break ties with their local police department or defund their school police department. Other districts across the nation are considering similar moves. 

Groups such as Black Lives Matter have been calling to abolish school police for years. Public sentiment toward school police started souring after a video surfaced in 2005 showing three police officers arresting a 5-year-old girl for misbehaving in a Florida school. Other recent incidents fueled this movement: Last September, an SRO at an Orlando elementary school arrested two 6-year-old girls after one of them reportedly threw a temper tantrum in school. In November, another officer yanked a screaming girl’s hair during an arrest after a student fight broke out near her middle school in Orange County, Calif. In December at a North Carolina elementary school, security footage caught an officer repeatedly picking up an 11-year-old student and slamming him down onto the ground. In February, another video showed an officer in an Arkansas high school holding a student in a chokehold, causing the boy’s feet to dangle off the ground. All the students were black, and all those officers lost their jobs after investigations.

Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, said these incidents reflect not a problem of police presence but of insufficient training and improper selection. The ideal school police officer, Hardy said, wears the uniform and builds positive relationships with students as an informal counselor and mentor: “So when students feel something’s wrong, they will go to that officer.”

That’s one reason why many school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, decided to hire its own police force—officers trained to deal with children without using force. Ideally, SROs serve as a bridge between the student and law enforcement, interceding before the student ever enters the criminal justice system, Hardy said: “A police officer coming from outside doesn’t have the same understanding of what’s going on with the student. He may be more likely to make an arrest, whereas an SRO who has built relationships within that school is less likely to make an arrest.” 

Hardy worked as a teacher before he became a police officer and then an SRO at Alabama’s largest high school for more than 20 years. He said the idea of school districts breaking ties with the police “keeps us up at night.” What happens when someone threatens the physical security of the school? What happens when violent fights break out among students? “You’re cutting out a valuable team member. We need to work together to make sure that students have a safe learning environment.” 

But the debate in many communities is whether police presence actually creates a safe learning environment in schools. At a June 30 Los Angeles Board of Education meeting that spanned more than 12 hours, parents, students, SROs, teachers union leaders, and social workers called in to voice their concerns or support for the school police. One former student said school police repeatedly searched and interrogated him in high school: “I feared for my own life ... I’ve gotten anxiety from school police.” A school social worker said she has seen police officers interrogate elementary school students: “Even if officers are doing everything perfectly, think about what our school police represents to our students who already witness so much community violence. … Spending money on punishment is not what makes our community safer.” 

Others said eliminating school police is a dangerous mistake. Officers pointed out that since 2005, they’ve saved 52 lives on L.A. Unified campuses, such as by dissuading suicidal students from jumping off a building. In the 2019-20 school year, school police officers responded to more than 115,000 calls that included 95 robberies, 466 assaults, and 155 mass-shooting threats—and didn’t fire a single bullet. Gil Gamez, president of the school police union, blamed the teachers union and Black Lives Matter for turning students against the school police. “Please don’t allow this district to turn into an experiment,” he begged the school board.

By the end of that meeting, members of the school board voted 4-3 to immediately cut $25 million from the district police’s $70 million budget, which may require cutting jobs for 65 of its 471 officers. The board proposed redirecting that $25 million to hire more social workers, counselors, and safety aides at schools with the highest percentage of black students. The next day, the school police chief resigned, calling the budget cut “detrimental and potentially life-threatening” to students and staff members. He said the cuts would eliminate after-hours security and a detective who focused on sex-trafficking prevention. 

At least one board member, George McKenna, the only black member of the seven-member board, also expressed strong objections against the budget cut: “It is extreme and unnecessary. I’ve never seen anything so ill-conceived and carried out with so much enthusiasm by elected officials.” At the board meeting McKenna, a retired principal, recalled violent incidents erupting in his school that required police intervention.

Though the discussion on school safety has largely revolved around the school police, the issue is much bigger, said Laura, the teacher who watched her student get handcuffed in school: “The problem is, no one is equipped to handle issues such as mental health because of lack of funding in our schools. So the only option is to call a police officer who isn’t trained in mental health, who’s only trained to restrain and arrest students.”

AP Photo/Matthew Brown

School Resource Officer George Zorzakis tells an eighth grader she’s not allowed in Lewis and Clark Middle School as the first day of classes this fall was limited to sixth graders only due to the pandemic, in Billings, Mont. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Laura works at a predominantly Latino high school in a low-income urban neighborhood in Los Angeles. Many come from unstable households or foster care, and the majority qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. That’s common in LA schools: 80 percent of students in L.A. Unified qualify for free or reduced meals. L.A. Unified is the second-largest school district in the nation (after the New York City Department of Education) with a budget of $7.59 billion for 1,302 schools and more than 730,000 students. Yet even with per-pupil spending that’s comparable to schools in other cities and states, many schools in low-income neighborhoods remain ill-equipped. 

One teacher in a middle school in LA with roughly half black and half Latino students told me her school can’t afford to hire elective teachers. Her school’s water fountains no longer work, old projectors need replacing, the central air and heating system is broken, and cockroaches crawl around the classrooms. Last school year, her school provided such outdated science textbooks that teachers had to make up their own. Another teacher in a predominantly black high school in South LA told me her school can’t afford sufficient technology or enough printing supplies. Often, she had to borrow supplies from other schools. Many schools and communities also lack afterschool programs and clubs. In Laura’s school, the only option available is an afterschool homework program—not the most exciting extracurricular activity for teenagers.

Teachers say students who display behavioral issues in class almost always have some kind of problem or trauma at home—that’s a lot of complex family dynamics and social variables that no school district can fix by itself. “What they need is not to be punished, but to be heard,” one teacher said.  

Over the last two decades, the number of police officers in schools has exploded. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 67 percent of high-school students, 45 percent of middle-school students, and 19 percent of elementary-school students attend a school with at least one police officer. But the level of police presence varies by region and race. Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland have a significantly larger percentage of students (more than 90 percent) attending schools with police presence than other states. High schools that have a larger share of black or Latino students also have higher rates of police presence on campus.

Studies on the effectiveness of school resource officers are limited and mixed: One study suggests police presence led to more arrests for disorderly conducts but fewer arrests for assault and weapon charges. Another study found police presence increased arrests for both non-serious violent offenses and weapons/drug crimes. Not much reliable research exists on whether SROs actually deter school shootings.

But perhaps the question isn’t whether police presence is effective, but rather, who police officers replace. Anthony Bradley, professor of religion, theology, and ethics at The King’s College in New York City, says schools today over-rely on police officers to handle disciplinary issues at the exclusion of other adults such as mentors, community leaders, counselors, and especially parents: “You’ve introduced the very system that undermines the demand for parents to get involved in the first place because you use the police as surrogate parents.” 

If most of the problems kids bring to school start at home, Bradley says the solution is helping communities build stronger, healthier homes—including financial literacy programs, mental health support, and marriage counseling for parents. “So the question is: Why? What is it about the humanity of low-income children that we don’t believe we can use alternative ways of resolving infractions and disputes and classroom management issues?” Bradley said.

That’s why Emilia Elias, a parent of three in a low-income LA neighborhood known for high rates of violence and homelessness, decided to step up as a parent advocate 12 years ago. When her oldest son, now 21, was still in elementary school, she saw a police officer handcuff a first grade student and realized that “sometimes as parents, we’re told we can’t do anything.” She says parents are the best advocates for their own kids but often don’t know how to be.

Three years ago, her youngest daughter’s eighth grade schoolmate was suspended because he told a teacher he had accidentally brought a knife to school. The student told the school’s police he had worn the same shorts he went camping with two days before without realizing his camping knife was still in his pocket. The police didn’t believe him and sent him home. 

The boy stayed home for three weeks waiting for the school to call him back, sinking into depression. His worried mother called Elias, who knew who to call. The school was just as surprised the boy had been suspended for that long. School officials expected the police to follow up with him, while the police had assumed the school would. He returned to school the next day, after three weeks of accidental suspension. 

“There was no communication with the parent,” Elias said. “Imagine if we hadn’t done anything in that situation. What would have happened to that boy?”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Thu, 09/10/2020 12:57 am

    I am disappointed by Sofia's article where she sounds more like the mouthpiece of BLM than a World journalist. Why exactly are we supposed to want to remove police from the schools? Are the police the enemy?

    After the mass shootings in the schools, nearly everybody agreed that having police in the schools was the best way to prevent these terrible massacres. But all of a sudden we have the BLM agenda and the police are the bad guys that Sofia wants to get rid of. Why exactly is this?

    The BLM are Marxists who want anarchy and chaos so they can ascend to power. They don't care about black lives but they want to sow racial discord and social unrest.

    This is the communist agenda that have been hoasted on states around the globe leading to a godless atheism where the church was severely wounded and many Christians died. Look at China. Look at North Korea. Didn't your parents tell you about the terrible war on the Korean Peninsula? And you have the gall to be the Marxists mouthpiece! 

  • JM
    Posted: Thu, 09/10/2020 07:37 am

    Character assassination will solve nothing.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Thu, 09/10/2020 08:31 am

    And exactly how is this "character assassination"? It is tough language but exactly why should it not be tough language when her sentimentality embraces Marxism and indirectly advocates their cause. It is a cause that wiped out a vast number of missionaries and Christians around the world. I have read Sofia's articles for a long time and I am sure she didn't intend to do this but she needs to be made aware that ideas have consequences - sometimes deadly.  

    She fails to see the underlying threat that the organizations pose with their Marxist agenda. They circulate propaganda that on the surface seems to be issues of justice but their intent is to drive a wedge between society and the police creating divisions, anger, revolution and the eventual overthrow of the government. They may not be able to accomplish a revolution this time but they will gather momentum for the next and with their ownership of the schools and universities, it is only a matter of time before they win over a majority of the population. When a revolution does occur, the heads of Christians will be on the chopping block! 

    Faithful are the wounds of a friend. 


  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 09/10/2020 06:50 pm

    Hey Cyborg3, you need to take a chill pill. READ the WHOLE article.

    Sophia is telling us what BLM has said, She is not supporting their agenda, it is called reporting.

    Sophia tells us the only black member of the school board voted AGAINST the police budget cut.

    Sophia tells us WHY taking police out of schools is getting support, it is because of a few videos with SRO’s acting badly. She also provides the numbers of lives saved by SRO’s.   

    In the majority of her article, Sophia expands on the true issues, low income households, bad home situations, poor parenting, poorly resourced schools, poor communication in the school-SRO-parent dynamic, poorly trained and selected SRO’s, misplaced dependence on using the SRO for school discipline issues, etc.          

  • khusmann
    Posted: Sat, 09/12/2020 12:55 am

    Why do we want to remove school police? When we put police in schools to help prevent mass shootings, but then these officers are traumatizing students by arresting first graders and handcuffing students in front of their classmates, then we have good reason to question whether we want police in schools. This whole business about suspending students because they forgot they had a knife in their pocket or backpack (are we talking about a pocketknife-- or a switchblade? There's a BIG difference which is totally ignored by today's school punishments) is totally nuts. Are these school police causing more harm than good? People are asking that question. As Americans, we should be careful to limit the powers of our government-- including school police.

    Having school police also conditions young people to accept a police state. There's always someone present watching you, searching your purse or your person, ready to haul you to jail if you step over the line. This tends to happen with or without Marxism or Communism. Is this what you want--young people that accept a police state as "normal"?

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 09/10/2020 02:46 pm


    Thank you for writing this well-balanced, thorough, inclusive article. You always do such good work. It's unfortunate that so many respondents have such a narrow, angry lens through which they perceive all information. World chose a timely topic, and this presentation is as neutral as it gets. Good work--thanks!

  • OldMike
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 05:32 pm

    After reading Cyborg3's first comment, I had to go back and re-read Miss Lee's article, because it didn't even seem Cyborg and I had read the same piece. 

    I'm going to have to say, I saw NOTHING in Miss Lee's article that remotely resembles what Cyborg says about Miss Lee being a "BLM mouthpiece" or Miss Lee writing (or thinking) the police are bad guys she wants to get out of schools.  She simply reports that some parties want police out of schools and gives some of the reasons people are demanding that.  There's no doubt that police officers sometimes make bad decisions (don't we all?), and sometimes the policies they have to follow are poorly thought out.  Reporting that is certainly not the same as taking a side in the debate. 

    I have appreciated Miss Lee's reporting and her perspective for several years. She brings great value to World News.  (Hi, WestCoastGramma, here we are agreeing on something again!  Will wonders never cease!)

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Wed, 09/16/2020 08:04 pm

    RC, If it is called reporting then how come she never brings up the underlying agenda of these groups? By not bringing up this agenda she fails her readers who don't understand the real issues. Do BLM really care about black lives? No, they are seeking that wedge issue to create civil unrest, chaos and anarchy so they latch onto police shootings, police brutality, and police incidents at school. They look at the rare events and put a light on it to flame the hatred of police and create civil unrest with the final goal of toppling our government and replacing it with a communist one. They are Marxists working towards a goal! 

    A Christian reporter needs to bring out the truth and help Christians see the real issues so they respond in a Christian way.   If they report as though BLM really does care about black lives, then they help shield them as they work toward their duplicitous ends. Essentially, you cause Christians to support their cause, not knowing something else is in operation below the radar. 

    Now concerning the issue of police officers in the classrooms: there has not been an issue with it until recently where BLM, AntiFa, and and other radical groups have sought to vilify the police. The way they do this is by focusing on extreme outlier cases presenting them as the normal inciting the public against the police. Now in science, we use statistics to determine what is the normal and we throw out the outliers to gain understanding. Propagandists, do the opposite where they take the outliers and use them as the normal to mislead the public. Have there been some bad incidents with police in the classrooms? Yes, but the vast number have served well and performed a function in our very imperfect public schools. 

    RC, I wasn't saying that Sophia's article was completely bad for she did report on some of the issues that you highlighted.  

    khusmann, the police officers aren't traumatizing students normally. As I said above you can take the outliers and try to pass them off as the norm, but that misleads people. One of the challenges is that teachers aren't allowed to discipline students so they end up calling the police when a kid is misbehaving, which makes it difficult for the police who want the kids to feel willing to talk if there is a bad situation they need to be aware of. Does this lead to the police state? I don't believe having a couple police in a big school will lead to a police state! 

    West Coast Gramma would think the article is balanced. She is from the west coast. I highlight again that using the outlier cases as the normal is not balanced.