California education officials announce plans to re-examine policing on school grounds

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced June 24 two ways in which the California Department of Education intends to support schools as districts throughout the state address concerns surrounding educational equity and racial justice.

Since the inception of the school resource officer decades ago, many families — especially families of color — have raised questions about the necessity of police in schools while pointing to research showing that Black children in particular are more likely than their white peers to be referred to law enforcement for disciplinary issues at school.

A 2015 study from the University of Florida Levin College of Law found that students were more likely to be referred to law enforcement for offenses like threats, fights, vandalism and theft at schools with officers who were on site at least weekly, rather than being sent to a counselor or other specialist who could get to the root of children’s misbehavior.

Supporters argue that having police on campus is necessary to respond quickly to violence, shootings and other serious disruptions within schools .Thurmond acknowledged that although he had positive experiences working with school resource officers in his time as a school board member, he has also seen data that shows that more student suspensions and arrests occur on campuses where police are present — something that “must be changed.”

To acquire accurate, timely data on how the presence of law enforcement on school campuses impacts students, Thurmond announced that the CDE is working with WestEd to compile and review existing research on school police programs. Among the topics to be explored are how the programs relate to student safety and to student discipline.

“We recognize that this is a complicated issue. There should never be a time where anyone is in a position to criminalize our kids,” Thurmond said. “At the same time, we recognize — and the research supports this — that we still have to figure out ways to address issues like police shootings, or bomb threats on campus. One of the things that I’m envisioning is that we need to look for some alternative.”

Such alternatives could include restorative justice and social-emotional programs, he explained, or those that focus on de-escalation and peacemaking skills to reduce violence on campus.

At the same time, it’s important that districts with SROs make it clear that officers are not to engage in student discipline.

“We are also going to be making recommendations for increased training, for increased accountability, for increased data collection,” Thurmond said. “And to make sure that any police officer who is on campus is someone who wants to be on that campus — who has chosen to be there, and not just having been assigned. And there will be training for them in implicit bias and in de-escalation and understanding of youth development.”

Lastly, in response to calls from students for more diverse representation in their curriculum, the CDE is launching a series of Ethnic Studies webinars for students, families and educators to familiarize themselves with the histories and contributions of populations drastically underrepresented in the current curriculum. The lessons will feature ethnic studies professors specializing in Africana studies; Asian American studies; Chicano Latino studies and Native American studies. The CDE is also currently preparing to submit its revised Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for public review.