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 Last school year, her school provided such outdated science textbooks that teachers had to make up their own.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?”