New task force begins difficult work of reforming school policing

The first of three hearings of California’s new Task Force on Safe Schools on June 30 sought to answer three main questions: Is there a place for police on school campuses? If so, what should their role be in promoting student safety? And if not, what strategies can districts implement to ensure students feel safe on campuses?

Following two hours of input from legislators and tough questions and testimony from police and researchers from UCLA, WestEd and the Learning Policy Institute, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond provided a concise summary of the overall discussion — “There are no easy answers.”

The creation of the task force is part of a larger effort by the California Department of Education to address racism and implicit bias in the education system, prompted by protests against police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Many students have been among those long advocating for the removal of police on school grounds, with many calling for the adoption of restorative justice practices and other measures that have been shown to increase safety while reducing suspensions or expulsions.

Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) expressed support for such action, noting that current strategies to secure schools are not working for all students. “Yes, we want our schools to be safe, but we also know that being treated with the same expectation of excellence and openness to learning are essential for success learning environments,” she said. “And given the systemic racism and bias that exists throughout our institutions, and the over-policing that occurs in our Black and brown and low-income communities, and interactions that some children may have observed — police presence in our schools does not communicate the same message to all children.”

Part of the problem is an overreliance both in and out of schools on policing in response to crises that stem from mental health issues, addiction, homelessness and other challenges that don’t improve with intervention from armed police officers, said Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco).

“We have over-relied on the police to address challenges in our schools that don’t need policing, and we need to do better at focusing policing on issues that truly require police intervention, and having other resources available to address challenges in our schools,” Weiner said.

Former SRO explains relationship-building benefits to police presence on campus

To Brian Lande — a Richmond police officer who served as a school resource officer until last month, when the West Contra Costa Unified School District board voted unanimously to cancel the district’s contracts with local police — police are an important part of school culture.

Most of his time was spent talking with students and building trust and rapport, Lande said. This was especially important with Black students or undocumented youth who feared law enforcement. “We tried to rectify what we saw as a significant underserving of police services to those students by building relationships,” he said. “What we found as a result of that is that we were now getting conflicts reported to myself or the other SROs in a way that allowed us to collaborate with other partners.”

Lande said he worked to connect students to organizations that partnered with the district to offer conflict mediation services and other interventions that could help resolve conflicts before they turned into an administrative issue. During his three years working in a Richmond high school, Lande said suspensions decreased for most types of offenses.

He attributed part of this to his police chief’s selection process, which largely only sent officers to work with students if they were committed to building relationships and collaborating within the schools. Training was also essential. An SRO is an employee of the municipality that partners with a school district through a memoranda of understanding, and has specialized training through the municipality, while a school police officer is an employee of the school district that is part of the district’s own police department and receives training through the district.

School police officers must complete an additional 40 hours of training, which includes active-shooter drills, conflict resolution and mediation, and an understanding student behavior and juvenile psychology.

Data supports social-emotional interventions

Not all interactions between students and school police are as ideal as those described by Lande, as illustrated by numerous videos online depicting violent interactions between officers on campus and Black students as young as 11.

Anthony Petrosino, WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center director, said that evaluations examining whether on-site officers made schools safer than those without police showed that they did not. Despite spending more on school police programs in recent decades and a significant increase of police presence in schools, there has not been a sufficient number of rigorous studies on the outcomes of such programs, Petrosino said.

Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) cited a recent survey finding that 60 percent of Black students in Los Angeles Unified School District said they did not believe school police were trustworthy or cared about them, 73 percent found police overly aggressive and 67 percent said they tended to escalate situations they responded to.

“As public policy leaders, we need to ask ourselves if normalizing a perpetual presence of police is necessary and healthy for our students,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s really important that we recognize that in some instances, schools have become a place of trauma versus a place of trust for students, and our Black, brown and immigrant students in particular have been disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison and the school-to-deportation pipeline.”

State Board of Education and Learning Policy Institute President Linda Darling Hammond noted that while training and robust frameworks for engagement between students and officers in schools is important, “we now have hundreds of studies and a set of meta-analysis [that] have found that if you explicitly teach all students and staff social-emotional skills and schoolwide restorative practices, school safety is significantly improved.”

Teaching students and school staff a range of problem-solving skills, a shared approach to conflict resolution, social responsibility for the safety and well-being of the community, emotional awareness, mindfulness and self-regulation strategies has been proven to not only make schools safer, but also significantly lower dropout rates and increase student achievement, Darling-Hammond said.

As the state continues to examine school policing, Thurmond said the CDE intends to discuss with lawmakers the potential to provide financial resources to help school districts pilot social-emotional and restorative justice programs.